When Alcoholism Meets Autism: Healing the Chaos and Misunderstandings in NeuroDivergent Relationships

Don’t be afraid to be confused. Try to remain permanently confused. 

Anything is possible. ~ George Saunders

Adult Children of Alcoholics.

“All of us. . . cousins are adult children of alcoholics, and none of us have escaped the negative effects of that. . . I have keenly felt your distress. . .and I’m beginning to think it may not even matter that you are right  about what is going on, as I think you have often been.”

In this email my cousin was attempting to understand the convoluted family system we both had lived with our entire lives. His message actually wandered through many pages of text as he attempted to come to terms with my concern:  That his sibling is autistic and in “grave danger” due to their morbid obesity, OCD and hoarding — and that he and the other family members needed to pull together to protect them from a “life threatening situation” (as I put it in my email).

As my cousin fumbled for a way to throw me off track, I remembered my own similar attempts to understand and protect our dysfunctional extended family. Yes protect. That’s what many children try to do. It’s an impossible task of course in an alcoholic family. But it is extraordinarily insurmountable in an undiagnosed family of NeuroDivergence (NeuroTypical and NeuroDiverse family members). While the alcohol abuse is fairly easy to spot, the Empathy Dysfunction of High Functioning autistic parents (and other family members) is frustratingly covert. No wonder it has taken me decades (and generations of my family history) to ferret out that our problems are not due to being children of alcoholics, but of being children in NeuroDivergent family systems.

Read my dear cousin’s message again. At some deeper level, he knows that I am right but he wants to dismiss what I know (and what he inherently knows) because it is profoundly painful.

When survivor children marry.

My cousin’s mother and my father were siblings who grew up impoverished during the Great Depression. Their parents (our Grandparents) divorced when they were young children. The boys (Earl Jr., Eugene, Wilford, and Herman) went to live with their father. The girls Eileen and Patia stayed with their mother. It was a matter of survival.

I remember the stories of hardship such as the death of my father’s twin sister, Wilma Pauline. Or the story of the boys riding the train from the Midwest to Oregon to be with their father. They were all alone and frightened. But their mother was poor so that all she could do was pin notes inside their jackets to make sure they had directions to their father’s house.

But there were joyful stories too, like the pride my father took in earning his Eagle Scout award or playing first chair clarinet in the high school band. I suppose he was driven to achieve because he came from a “broken” family. He also shared the honor of serving his country in World War II with four of his siblings. Earl Jr. was a Marine. Eugene a Paratrooper in the Army. Wilford Paul (my father) was a Navy Signalman. Herman followed his older brother into the  Navy at age 16 (lying about his age). Patia, the baby and youngest daughter was a Sergeant in the Marine Corps.

I could tell you more, but alcoholism doesn’t really play a part — exactly. Yes my aunt and my father drank and sometimes too much. But now that I realize they both married High Functioning Autistic partners, there may be another explanation. Rather than my cousin’s description that we are “Adult Children of Alcoholics” a better description is that we are “Adult Children of NeuroDivergent Parents,” — and worse, undiagnosed NeuroDivergent parents.

I have written extensively about my mother’s undiagnosed autism. My uncle (my cousin’s father) on the other hand is a relatively new realization. As I recognized the autism of my cousin (and another of their siblings) and traced it back to my Uncle Ray it is obvious. He wore the same clothes day after day. He engaged his special interests by disappearing into his shop for hours. He prepared meals for the family but never sat down with us at the dinner table. He was sweet and kind in many ways, but never made any time to get to know me. He was brilliant but aloof.

I remember one particularly sad moment with my uncle, after my aunt had passed away (at the young age in her 50s). I guess he realized that I might know something about psychology and mental health and grieving. As he talked about his wife, he said, “I don’t think I handled things the way I should have with Pat.” He looked at me with a rather flat expression (so autistic), but I surmised there was sadness. I tried to be comforting, “I am sure she knew you loved her.” At least I hoped that was true, but in NeuroDivergent relationships it is debatable that my NeuroTypical aunt knew she was loved.

Now that I have a different perspective I know that my father and my aunt were remarkable people, intelligent, good looking, vivacious, curious, capable and they married two Autists because they were so empathic and giving that they could accept the oddness in their partners. Plus of course  there was the insecurity of their impoverished childhood that drove them to take care of others, as they couldn’t their parents and siblings. This is the legacy for me and my cousins too.

Parenting is about creating memories.

How could my cousins and I have gotten it so wrong? We were children at the time we experienced our parents for the first time, so of course we couldn’t possibly understand the entire convoluted dynamic of a NeuroDivergent family (especially a multigenerational NeuroDivergent family). The subtle gas lighting, and microaggressions, and social missteps of our NeuroDiverse parents were overshadowed by the drunken frustrations of our binge drinking parents. 

I always knew my autistic mother was “different” and “difficult.” We never laughed together or had warm moments baking cookies, for example. My home was not the place the neighborhood kids gathered because we were usually locked out of the house so Mom could have her “solitude” as she used to say. She was stern and aloof and one to be avoided.

My father on the other hand was playful. He noticed me. He talked with me. We went for walks when the weather was good. I especially liked walking to Sam & Jean’s Market for pecan pie on a summer evening. When we watched our favorite television programs Dad made our special snack of mayonnaise on saltines. It was because my father wanted my sister and I to know more about the world we lived in, that we spent almost every school break traveling to some state or national park. We crisscrossed the country on those marvelous road trips.

In fact, some of my fondest memories come from those trips in our 1953 Buick Deluxe (Aqua Azure). Dad let me sit up front, while my mother and sister slept in the back seat. In those days there were no seat belts and children could sit up front, even though it wasn’t safe, but we didn’t know that. Dad and I would sing songs and tell jokes and laugh so hard we both cried. 

When I was about eight or nine and could read well, Dad would put me in charge of reading the paper map on these trips. He would help me unfold the map and then refold it into a square for the section we were driving. He’d show me the route we would take. It was my job to add up the mileage on the map to figure out how far we were from the next stop. Often I would notice the “scenic” spots notated on the map. Dad always said, “If there’s something we should stop and see, please let me know.” He trusted me like that.

Often I would find something intriguing, like the “World’s largest Frying Pan.” Dad never said no — never. He’d say, “That sounds perfect. Let’s go. Give me directions.” So, we would turn down some old country road, while I guided Dad with my map. We’d bump through a few potholes, past the Grange or a field of sunflowers, and eventually come to stop in front of an old oak tree with a huge cast iron frying pan hanging from a tree limb. Mom would wake up at this point to be shocked that we were “off the track.” She would scold us, “What the h— Paul! Where are we?” But Dad and I didn’t care. We were out of the car — Dad with his Kodak in hand, already taking a picture of me in front of the “World’s largest Frying Pan.”

I had no idea how adventurous we were then until I researched some of our old travel photos. Wow! Dad steered us to Yellowstone Park in the days before they had paved roads. My sister and I are photographed on the Teacup ride at Disneyland, during their Grand Opening in 1955 (yes he took us there for the opening!). I have lots of photos with family too, like the time a “passle” of us  cousins visited the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. On another occasion we stood in awe at the edge of Niagara Falls. So, so many memories . . . all because my father was the type of person who believed the purpose of parenting was to create memories with his children — show us our world — and help us to grow into big hearted adventurous Souls, just like he was.

What about the drinking?

My parents and their siblings grew up during the Great Depression. They came of age during World War II. They were part of that marvelous generation that were scrappy and innovative and built our modern society from their blood, sweat and tears so that their children could have everything they didn’t have when they were kids. I have a wonderful life as a result. I am in their debt.

For this generation social life centered around drinking and smoking cigarettes and playing cards. They’d hang out at local bars and shoot darts. At least that is what my parents did. They weren’t part of the elite. They were among ordinary factory workers, and mechanics, and cocktail waitresses, who wanted more for their children — and they gave it to us.  

I can’t be certain that my father and my aunt wouldn’t have become alcoholic regardless of who they married. My aunt loved to drink mixed alcoholic beverages. My father preferred beer. All I know is that my father occasionally got drunk on the weekend, but he always got up to go to work on Monday morning. He would sometimes be belligerent when he was drunk, but mostly he would just go to sleep.

It never occurred to me as a child that he drank to cope with my mother. But I suspect that is true. I know that they argued. I know that he got increasingly anxious over the years. And when my mother died from lung cancer at age 49 (mostly likely due to her chain smoking) my father was bereft. He never remarried. He was lost and sad. 

Once I recognized my mother’s autism, long after my father had passed, I finally understood my father’s loneliness. This incredible loving man was crushed under the weight of my mother’s undiagnosed autism and Empathy Dysfunction Disorder. All I have are my childhood memories so I don’t remember the truth as an adult would know it. But I can guess that my father and mother were sweethearts once. It was long gone by the time I could notice them with the eyes of a teenager (not quite adult perspective). I believe their love was destroyed by undiagnosed NeuroDivergence.

When a NeuroTypical parent is not enough.

I know only too well what it is like to parent an autistic child with an autistic coparent, and yet have no idea what I am doing. Neither Howard, nor Bianca were diagnosed before I had thoroughly wrapped myself into codependency — just like my father Paul and my Aunt Patty. I was anxious. I was scared. I was dancing as fast as I could to keep up with the impossible mishigas of an undiagnosed NeuroDivergent family. And yes, I drank to cope.

When my cousins remember their mother, they discuss all of the ways she let them down. According to them she drank too much. She yelled too much. She expected too much, especially of her eldest child — the child who is autistic. My cousins felt sorry for their eldest sibling and blame their mother to this day for the terrible outcome that befell their sib this year (when they had a frightening meltdown, amid their infested hoarding, and was rushed to the hospital with encephalitis and near death).

Unfortunately, I can relate to my aunt, not only the despair of a mother trying to parent an undiagnosed autistic child, but also the indescribable pain of being blamed for not being a good enough mother. For example, I watched in despair as my Bianca got more bewildered by the social world, even though I worked so hard to help her learn interpersonal skills. Her hygiene was awful too, but she fought me to take a shower, or brush her teeth, or even to use toilet paper. My aunt and I were both NeuroTypical mothers with autistic children, coparenting with an emotionally absent NeuroDiverse partner. The result? We both are maligned.

When my cousins rail about their mother’s shortcomings, I ask them, “Who was the primary parent in your home? Was your father ever around?” Often I get a blank look and then a nod, “Well Mom was the primary parent and Dad was never there — but you know she was mentally ill and too harsh!”

Letting go of that belief that their NeuroTypical parent is to blame for all of the chaos and misunderstanding in their childhood — seems next to impossible in NeuroDivergent families. My own children believe this of me too. Odd isn’t it? That the parent most responsible for loving them and being there for them through all of their childhood ups and downs — is also blamed for the problems that emerge in a NeuroDivergent family.

I hope someday my cousins forgive their mother — and I hope my children forgive me too — for not knowing what I didn’t know at the time, and that I made terrible mistakes that hurt them, but that I tried with all of my heart. I hope they finally recognize that it is not alcoholism that destroyed our family, but that it was undiagnosed and untreated autism.

Get a diagnosis to free your family. 

Autism is a primary disorder and needs to be diagnosed in order to save relationships, children and families. As I have mentioned in other blogs and podcasts, autism is not the problem per se. It is the collision of the worlds of NeuroDiverse and NeuroTypical that lead to the problems in these  relationships. When you don’t understand this dynamic, then it is all too easy to blame and wreak havoc in families. 

A diagnosis levels the playing field, so to speak. It gives you information and tools to work with. I often hear people disparage the diagnosis and say foolish things like, “I don’t need a label.” Autism is far more than a label. A diagnosis can be a lifesaver. My family is a heartbreaking example of what can happen when there is no diagnosis. 

When I say that autism is a primary disorder I mean that it is important to identify the autism first, and early on. Families need to know what they are dealing with as soon as possible. It is important to guide the Autist to find a constructive way to develop their authentic self. But it is also important to help the NeuroTypical family members (spouses, partners, children, siblings, etc.) to discover who they are  too. 

Chaos, misunderstanding, chemical dependency, and yes, even child abuse, are the tragic result of denying the autism in a family. I understand my father and his sister because I lived this life too of a NeuroTypical going through an existential crisis within my NeuroDivergent household. Is it any wonder that all three of us turned to alcohol to cope?

Of course, I am not blaming my mother, or my dear Uncle Ray. I am being open with you because I can only hope that other NeuroDivergent couples and families will learn from our family misery. 

When you look for simple answers alcoholism makes sense. But if you are willing to dig a lot deeper, you might find that autism explains more about your family mystery. Armed with a proper diagnosis and treatment you might find a way back to sanity for all of you in a NeuroDivergent family.

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