The Therapist who Understood Autism in Adults

This story is fiction. Learn more about my use of fiction HERE.

Megan’s father had high-functioning autism and today was Megan’s first day of therapy. She sat in the office waiting room with her chin in her hands and thought about how different her life was than the lives of other 15-year-olds. She was old for her age…. mature…. and she knew it. She wondered if her new therapist would understand.

Megan’s mother sat quietly in the chair opposite Megan, looking into Megan’s face. Megan knew her mother was concerned about her. She squirmed in her seat.

I wish she didn’t worry so much, Megan thought.

Both Megan and her mother were typically developing. Megan’s family had two kinds of people: people with autism and typically developing people. It was weird to think about it that way, but it was so true. Even though other people in families without any autism didn’t get it, Megan knew her family was a mixed family. It was undeniable.

Typically developing people are different than people with autism and Megan knew which category everybody in her family fell into and what that meant for her. So what if the word “category” wasn’t PC or sounded bad? It was the truth! Megan was typically developing and her father wasn’t — even if most people were unaware of what that meant for the two of them and the rest of her family.

Megan was different than other typically developing kids. Her 15 years had taught her to be an expert caretaker. Other kids just wouldn’t get it. She was an expert in managing autism and wondered if her new therapist would understand anything about her perspective.

At only 15, Megan understood how to help prevent meltdowns, how to withhold the wrong information from her father and share the right information with him — not to deceive him, but to simplify both of their lives emotionally. Megan knew that if she offered the wrong information, her father might get needlessly upset and that his escalated emotions would just be needless trouble… putting her in the position of needing to calm him, or, preferably, retreating to her bedroom and locking the door.

She knew it wasn’t her job to manage her father’s tumultuous moments. Her mom had been sure to help her understand that no matter what, taking care of her father wasn’t Megan’s responsibility. Megan kept that in mind every time she retreated to her bedroom when a meltdown began.

That didn’t mean Megan didn’t have to take care of him sometimes or that she wasn’t willing to help. She was… it’s just that she didn’t like it. She understood that people with autism need a lot of emotional care and that as an experienced typically developing teenager, she had enough insight and capacity to help her father through some of his more difficult moments. And since she could help him, sometimes she would.

“It’s not my job to be his caretaker, though” she often repeated to herself, even while helping calm him. “It’s my job to go to school and to build a life for myself. That doesn’t mean I’m selfish, it means I know that a lot of children of people with autism grow up to marry someone on the spectrum. I’m not going to sacrifice myself too much and make that mistake. Being married to someone with autism was too hard on my mom and I deserve a better life than she had.”

Megan’s mother had taught her well. Megan knew that she knew to say these things to herself because her mom had made it clear — over and over again —  that Megan should do everything she could to ensure a better life for herself.

Megan looked up and saw her mother’s worn face. It seemed like the divorce had lasted Megan’s entire life. Her father just wouldn’t let it go and wouldn’t acknowledge that her mother had ever done anything right. You’d think the couple was still married the way the war raged on. Megan knew very well that her father had been abusive of her mother even while he was sure that he was the victim.

He wasn’t a victim. Megan had seen enough to know. He couldn’t see anyone else’s perspective and always believed he was being taken advantage of when in reality people were serving him and helping him. What a nightmare it had all been.

But despite it all, Megan loved her father. She loved their long conversations about basketball and the happy times they spent cooking together. Her father was a good friend. She could see the way he was intentionally hurting her mother and also that he didn’t understand how obvious it was to her that he was in the wrong. She could see all the ways he tried to be a good father despite the horrifying way he was acting towards her mother.

Autism, what a mess, she thought as she tried to sort through her mixed feelings. Her mother was right: she did need a therapist.

As long as Megan and her dad stayed within their shared interests and as long as she didn’t talk too much about herself or expect her father to understand her emotions or perspective, he was a lot of fun.

And since Megan knew about the autism and understood her father’s limitations, her feelings weren’t too hurt when he couldn’t provide her with emotional support or understand why she was upset about something. Emotional information about herself was simply one of the topics she never tried to broach with him. There was no need. He wouldn’t understand anyway. And that was okay. That’s the way her father was.

So, she’d take care of him emotionally, but he couldn’t return the favor. A lot of times, she was more the parent than the child.

Life with autism was like one big, long contradiction. Megan could know that he was abusive of her mother and still love him. He had autism after all. He was trying so hard so much of the time.

Megan knew that ultimately, she had an awareness of the world her father was missing. She knew that if she were less of a person, she’d be able to take advantage of her father’s inability to perceive what was happening socially and lie up a storm to get away with things.

But that’s what other kids might do… kids with normal parents, she thought. Kids who didn’t have to deal with the reality that their fathers had developmental disorders could take advantage of their parents, but it wouldn’t be fair for Megan to act that way towards her father.

But he takes so much advantage of my mom. Wow, this is so confusing, she thought to herself. How can I ever expect a therapist to understand?

Well, regardless, thank heavens she understood autism herslf! Megan had a lot to be thankful for. If she didn’t understand autism, she’d need A LOT more help from a therapist than she was hoping to get today. At least understanding what autism was helped her make a little bit of sense of her family and her parents’ ridiculous divorce.

I hope the therapist gets here soon. If she just understands autism, I’ll be able to talk about what it’s like to have a father on the spectrum without trying to explain every detail.

That was Megan’s true wish: wish for support from a typically developing adult who wasn’t her mother and who understood autism, too. Even though Megan knew she’d be okay without, another adult outside the family who could really understood is what Megan wanted more than anything. Talking to her mom just wasn’t the same.

Megan’s mom had been hurt in the marriage and the divorce — a lot — but Megan didn’t want to hear about it or to have to talk to her mother about her father. She loved her father and all of that was her mom’s problem. And it had to be. Her mom was often tired and hurt from managing all her father’s attacks, but both of them agreed that it wasn’t Megan’s job to take care of her mother’s pain either.

“It’s my job to take care of me,” she whispered to herself. Not my dad, not my mom — me. 

“Hello, are you Megan?” A kind-looking woman had just stepped into the waiting room.

“I am,” Megan replied. She’s finally here. I’m going to find out if she understands autism.

Megan looked up at her mother’s face. Her mother smiled gently, then nodded towards Megan, reassuring her. Typically developing people nod like that, Megan thought. And I know what it means because I’m typically developing. But will the therapist understand that people with autism don’t understand?

Megan stood and followed the therapist from the waiting room. She felt her mother’s eyes following her all the way to the door.

The therapist’s office was warm and well decorated. Megan sat in a comfy chair and played with a knick-knack on the therapist’s end table while the therapist made the first conversation. Megan answered questions about herself and talked about how difficult her parents’ long divorce had been as well as how glad she was that they weren’t married anymore.

“It was such a bad marriage for my mom,” she said. “I love my dad, but my mom was so unhappy. That wasn’t a real marriage. And my dad, he’s pretty much unhappy all the time no matter what. I don’t think he’ll be able to find another woman to marry him — I hope not anyway. That would be terrible. I want my mom to remarry, but not my dad.”

Megan saw the therapist nod.

Well, she’s obviously typically developing, Megan thought.

“Do you know anything about high-functioning autism in adults?” Megan asked.

“Yes,” the therapist said. “I know that when a family member has high-functioning autism, you spend a lot of time taking care of that person and I know that the person with autism rarely knows that you’re doing anything for them. It’s a thankless job. You work and work and work and put a lot of effort in, and the person with autism isn’t aware that you did anything at all. They might even feel taken advantage of.”

“You understand!” Megan shouted, almost jumping out of her seat. “You get it! I can’t believe you get it! Yes, that’s exactly what it’s like. My father has autism and I’ve been so alone. Almost nobody gets it. Thank you for being alive!”

Megan’s smile was enthusiastic. What luck to find a therapist who actually understood! This therapy was going to be worth it.

Learn more about my use of fiction HERE.

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