dad and son giving high fives

My Child Has Autism: Could I Be Autistic, Too?

It’s happened to many parents. Your child seems to be developing slowly, or struggles with making friends, or has behavior issues at school. You consult a specialist, who suspects autism and recommends a formal evaluation. Then comes Early Childhood Intervention, an Individualized Education Program, or other accommodations-based learning approaches.

As you learn about autism symptoms and challenges, you suddenly realize this isn’t too different from what you went through at your child’s age. You’ve learned coping skills through trial and error, but might things have been easier if you’d had an autism diagnosis and support, years ago?

And could that still help now?

When Autism Runs in the Family

First, autism can be hereditary: if your child has autism, chances are good that one or more close relatives are also autistic. It could well be you—and/or your own parent(s), and/or someone on the other parent’s side of the family.

Second, many people have had autism for years without knowing it. This is most likely if:

  • The autism is Level 1 or “high-functioning,” with fewer obvious symptoms. (“Level 1 autistic” people can usually function without formal support, though limited social and executive skills still cause problems.)
  • The person was born before 1990. (Non-obvious autism was little recognized by previous generations. For a timeline of autism research up to 2017, see the Scientific American article, “The Real Reasons Autism Rates Are Up in the U.S.”)

Autistic parents can be an advantage or disadvantage to an autistic child:

  • On the positive side, parents have personal understanding of the mindset and challenges involved.
  • On the other hand, autistic parents have personal struggles with impatience and perfectionism—liabilities in most parenting situations, and especially where a child is easily frustrated or hurt.

So, yes: if your child is diagnosed with autism, it pays to get tested if you recognize any symptoms in yourself.

Autism in Adulthood

Pre-diagnosis, most “Level 1 autistic” adults are already long aware of being somehow “different.” Where someone has lived years or decades with undiagnosed autism, common symptoms include:

  • A history of difficulties in making friends, sustaining relationships, or finding steady work.
  • Memories of being bullied or ignored.
  • Excelling in, and spending long hours at, preferred work or hobbies.
  • A habit of “masking,” or going against one’s natural instincts to fit in. Consciously forcing oneself to maintain eye contact or stay for the full length of a gathering. Saying “yes” when one wants to say “no,” due to uncertainty about what’s best and/or fear of being judged.
  • Needing careful observation and practice to implement social cues.
  • Needing extra time to think before speaking. Often saying nothing for fear of speaking too quickly, or beginning to speak at the same moment someone else does.
  • Proneness to fatigue, depression, and mid-life/transition crisis.
  • A pervasive feeling that life is just plain unfair.

For many, a “late” autism diagnosis is a relief: finally, you have official confirmation that your instincts aren’t “wrong,” just divergent. And that there is real potential in being your real self.

On the other hand, you now face the challenge of replacing longtime practices with new, healthier habits: not particularly easy for any adult, and all the harder with an autistic brain that thrives on the familiar. Plan on getting individual therapy, plus family therapy to build a supportive relationship with your child.

Looking Ahead

Ideally, therapy should involve every member of your family, autistic and neurotypical alike. Building a future for your child—and yourself—means finding the best possible ways to:

  • Understand and accept everyone’s uniqueness.
  • Support each other through the ups and downs of life.
  • Encourage everyone to do their fair share, in the ways they are best qualified for.
  • Help everyone become the best versions of their unique natural selves.

You’re never too old to learn new approaches. Expect the best and trust that autism can be a blessing!

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