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There's something different about dad


Family life: growing up with an Asperger parent can be particularly tough due to their strict rules and standards. Psychiatrist John Fitzgerald says children can become withdrawn and depressed.

Family life: growing up with an Asperger parent can be particularly tough due to their strict rules and standards. Psychiatrist John Fitzgerald says children can become withdrawn and depressed.

Family life: growing up with an Asperger parent can be particularly tough due to their strict rules and standards. Psychiatrist John Fitzgerald says children can become withdrawn and depressed.

IMAGINE if your dad insisted upon meeting you at the school gate and walking you home every day - even though you're a second-level student.

Or suppose he loses the rag every time your mobile phone rings or is outraged if somebody moves a favourite ornament a few inches?

On top of all of that, he may be pedantic, distant and extremely controlling -- his way to do something is the only way.

We've heard about the difficulties faced by parents trying to cope with Asperger syndrome in children but what must it be like to have an Asperger's parent?

A developmental disorder which can cause severe difficulties in terms of social interaction, communication and flexible thinking, Asperger syndrome affects an estimated 16,000 people in Ireland, most of them male. It's believed the ratio can be as high as nine males to every female.


However, it's also increasingly accepted that many women may have gone undetected, possibly because of different cultural attitudes and expectations -- society approves of little girls who are quiet-spoken and introverted, for example, whereas boys are expected to be more boisterous and outgoing.

Having a parent with Asperger syndrome can make for a tough upbringing which can leave a child with psychological scars

"You would see the impact on the normal child -- it can make a child withdrawn, angry or depressed. They may react by withdrawing from the father. It can have very significant effects on children," says consultant psychiatrist Michael Fitzgerald, who recently retired from his post as the first professor of child and adolescent psychiatry in Ireland at Trinity College. He is director of two courses on psychotherapy at the university.

"Asperger's people can be extremely rigid and controlling, which is very difficult for the child," says Mr Fitzgerald.

"They can be dominating and dictatorial and they have difficulty tuning in to the child's feelings -- they can be puzzled by the child's feelings and miss cues on the child's face.

"They may have difficulty knowing what the child is thinking and feeling and have difficulty putting themselves into the shoes of the child."

As a result, he says, the child may be left feeling bewildered and believing the parent to be insensitive, cold and even cruel.

"These parents are very black and white -- a thing is either right or wrong and there is no in-between," he says, adding that the condition can make for an upbringing that is puritanical, even Victorian.

Asperger parents also often have very high moral and ethical standards and the family is expected to live up to these standards, which are very inflexible.

"This phenomenon of an Asperger parent rearing a child who does not have the condition is quite common and I see it regularly," he observes.

Kirsti Evans has just written a guide for children about how to deal with an Asperger parent.

She got the idea for the book when, as an Autism Development Coordinator in the UK, she was asked to visit the family of a child exhibiting behavioural difficulties.

Evans quickly realised that the problem lay not in the child but in the father, who had undiagnosed Asperger syndrome.

"He was extremely controlling and inflexible. He did all the food shopping and they had to eat exactly the same thing for dinner every day."

Kirsti searched unsuccessfully for material which could help the child understand the situation, but what she wanted wasn't available.

So the concept for 'Something Different About Dad', was born. The book, which was published at the end of last year, offers child-friendly information in cartoon format on how a parent with Asperger syndrome can affect a family.

Asperger parents often don't understand the social impact of what, to their children, are highly irrational rules, says Ms Evans.

They may not grasp the importance of independence for a growing child and they often dislike big group activities -- the social side makes them uncomfortable, while too much sensory stimulation is a problem.

"People with Asperger's can find it difficult to process new sensory information such as being in a new environment or dealing with a lot of sensory stimulation at the same time." All of this can cause problems, she warns.

"It will impact on the child's self-esteem -- they may feel the parent does not have time for them or finds them to be a source of irritation.

"The child can also be made to feel second best because the Asperger parent can often appear to put his own needs first.

"The control mechanisms used by them can appear to be unreasonable to a child and may spark defiance and eventually push a child out of the home, while still at quite a vulnerable stage."

Evans gives the example of another Asperger dad who couldn't stand the sound of a ringing telephone. On occasion, she says, he threw away or even destroyed the family's mobiles. To his child, this behaviour seemed completely irrational. In the end, the family put their phones on silent.


There can be severe implications for the child's relationship with the parent, agrees Des McKernan, honorary secretary and a founding member of Aspire, the Asperger Syndrome Association of Ireland.

"A parent with Asperger's could be quite distant where the child is concerned and the child could see them as cold and lacking in affection or not interested. It could leave a child feeling neglected or resentful -- you could have a parent who is very pedantic and very rule-orientated -- if a child moved a flower vase a few inches, for example, the parent could get quite upset."

So what to do? It's not enough for the other parent to explain the problem away by saying, 'oh that's just your Dad' believes Evans.

As the child gets older, they may become ashamed of what goes on at home.

"It can make for a difficult atmosphere in the house. It can affect the relationship between the parent and the child because the child thinks the parent doesn't care about him.

"The parent may not be physically affectionate for a number of reasons such as sensory issues."

Creating awareness of the condition and its implications for the family is crucial she says.

Getting a diagnosis can be a helpful first step. "It will highlight the issue and encourage them to research it and possibly seek out appropriate treatment. This is important for the family so they know what they're dealing with."

However, if the situation is not too difficult, it is possible to adapt family life to the needs of the Asperger parent in a more informal way as long as everyone is aware of the effects of Asperger syndrome.

"How the family adapts is what is important," she emphasises.

The Asperger's parent also needs to understand his or her condition and take on board some responsibility for how they interact with others, she cautions, for example, removing themselves from a crowded room when they can feel a sensory overload coming on.

'Something Different about Dad' by Kirsti Evans and illustrated by John Swogger (Jessica Kingsley Publishers), €14, is available from good bookshops

Aspire -- The Asperger Syndrome Association of Ireland. Tel: 01 878 0027, email: admin@aspireireland.ie, www.aspireireland.ie

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