A misunderstood mother-daughter bond.
How Asperger’s syndrome is redefining one mother-daughter relationship—for the better.
my mom and I have always been close. Years ago Mom visited a psychic, who told her that in a past life she and I were sisters— she was the impish younger sister and I the older, more responsible one. I can buy that. Throughout my life, I have often felt like my mom’s big sister. Schooling her in acceptable social behaviour (like making small talk and eye contact) was normal for me growing up. I knew my relationship with my mom was unique, but I didn’t know just how different it was until the end of my senior year at university in New York, when Mom called from Toronto to tell me she had Asperger’s.
Wondering why she had felt misunderstood and lost for most of her life, my mom, at the age of 45, sought answers. A year later, she was diagnosed with Asperger’s. I didn’t know what it was. And I didn’t know what to say (a first in our relationship). But I remember hearing this tremendous sense of relief in her voice—like a weight had been lifted from her soul—that instantly soothed me. Finally, I said to her, “That explains a lot.”
I soon learned that “Aspies”—a nickname for those who have been diagnosed with the neurological disorder—are generally people who don’t understand social cues and are easily overwhelmed by outside stimuli. In 2013, the name of the condition was changed to autism spectrum disorder, but Mom and many other Aspies prefer the older term h
because the diagnosis is considered much more than a label; it’s a source of pride because it means that they have been surviving in a world that, for them, seems chaotic and sometimes uninviting.
There are all sorts of situations you grow up with that start to seem askew as you get older. During my childhood, my dad shouldered the financial responsibility of our family while I handled the emotional stuff. Like most Aspies, Mom couldn’t maintain a job or many friendships, so it was up to me—my parents’ only child—to tell her when someone was being sarcastic or remind her that she couldn’t always behave however she wanted whenever she wanted—like the time she lost control of her anxiety and lashed out at me in a crowded bookstore. “Those people now think you’re a bad mom when you’re really a good mom!” I told her.
And she is a good mom. “Always speak your mind and be yourself,” she’d say to me. Mom can’t really avoid being blunt (a common characteristic of her disorder), but her directness and audaciously authentic demeanour have made me a straight shooter. I am confident about asking for a raise and expressing my feelings. Friends, boyfriends and bosses always know where they stand with me because I’m not afraid to voice my desires—or displeasure. (Although, over the years, I have also learned that you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.)
In spite of her own lone- wolf tendencies, Mom encouraged me to attend sleep-away camp, join sports teams and, when I was older, travel the world. My passport and weekends are full because of her selfless love. She also insisted I follow my dreams and do what I love, which helped me flourish as a writer. Because Mom struggles to find her passion in life, she didn’t want the same for me. Bedtime kisses were followed by the mantra “Find something that makes you excited to get out of bed in the morning.” For me, that is being able to write and express myself creatively on a daily basis. So, after fighting to find the “happy” in my full-time editorial job, I remembered Mom’s wise words and quit to go freelance two years ago. It was the best decision I could have made for myself.
My mom recently told me that she needs me in her life to show her “how to be a real person.” But I feel the same way about her. And it’s that innate self-awareness of hers that inspires me most. She might still have an “Aspie” moment or two—like repeating herself because she’s worried she’s not being understood or when she has trouble recognizing sarcasm (“Mom, I’m joking!”)—but she’s intent on learning from these misinterpretations while waving her Aspie flag proudly.
Mom works daily at evolving into the best person she can be, including landing a dog-walking gig, practising mindful meditation and writing in a journal about her experience with Asperger’s. She has taught me humility and grace and what it’s like to love someone for who they are—not for who you want them to be.
Oscar Wilde once wrote “All women become their mothers; that is their tragedy.” I have to disagree with Mr. Wilde just this once, though— I think it would be my greatest strength. n