The Autistic Elephant in the Room

When you look at your baby it’s impossible not to wonder about inheritance. My daughter has her mother’s eyes, ears, nose, lips, hair and fingers. The only thing she seems to have inherited from the Drew family’s genetic legacy is the bum chin that I don’t even have. And despite being less than a month old, she still has more hair than me.

Luckily, her behaviour is more equally shared between us: she slurps her milk like her daddy, spills it down herself like her mummy, and is as noisy and uncoordinated as the both of us. I imagine the incontinence must come from elsewhere.

When you have autism, and so does your partner, the question of what your children might inherit from you takes on additional weight. While Lizzie and I were trying for a baby we were often asked if we were worried our child might be autistic. Whilst there’s no convincing evidence that autism runs in families – around one in twenty people with autism have siblings on the spectrum – anecdotally, many of us with Asperger’s can see autistic traits in at least one of our parents. So what if we create an autistic child?

As an individual, autism infuses the whole of my being. It is who I am, and my ways of thinking and feeling are inseparable from my condition. The same is true of Lizzie. I love her in spite of her autism, and because of it. We would not have achieved the things we have, in the ways we have, if we did not have Asperger’s Syndrome.

So would I want Izzie to be autistic? That’s an impossible question to answer. If I say no, it does a disservice to all the people I know with autism who would not be who they are without it. If I say yes, I am setting her up for a lifelong struggle in addition to the regular trials and tribulations that come with being human. In truth, whether she has it or not, it doesn’t matter at all. Aspergic or neurotypical, she will be uniquely herself and I will love her just the same and be there to support her regardless.

And yet I keep watching her for signs. You can’t tell below six months, apparently, but I thought the other day, ‘She makes good eye contact, she can’t be autistic.’ We gave her a bath for the first time last week. She sat in silence until we wet her head when she absolutely screamed the house down; I cannot abide anybody touching my head. But she loved her second bath. It’s just too early to tell.

I think it’s only natural for parents to want to wrap their children in cotton wool. Knowing the life I have led, spending a quarter of a century bouncing from misdiagnosis to misdiagnosis, doped up to the eyeballs on various mood stabilising and antidepressant medications, and suffering several breakdowns to boot, my family didn’t want me to have children. There was too much risk the child would be autistic. How would I cope? What if Social Services took her away? What if, what if, what if?

Deep down, I probably don’t want Izzie to have autism: I know firsthand just how hard it can be. But as I said to my parents, by protecting me from the bad things in life they’re also protecting me from the good. If I didn’t have a child, my life would be easier, but emptier; avoiding the risk of things going wrong means you avoid every opportunity to better your situation. And I wouldn’t change having Izzie for the world.

I have to remember this going forward. As a parent, I’d rather Izzie had an easier life and thus didn’t have autism. But perhaps autism would open up opportunities for her that she’d never have without it. It is not for me to say who she ought to become. I just have to make sure that, whatever issues Izzie might face in her life, she knows that her dad is behind her all the way.

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