Family Dynamics – Yenn Purkis

Next week I m going to visit my parents. Despite having a difficult relationship in the past between us, I now love seeing them. I’m thinking how my mum will have a mango ready for my breakfast that she has specially bought and that Jalna yoghurt I like too. She has been telling me all about the shops in Beechworth that she wants to show me and the weekend will be spent just with family and friends I grew up with. Everyone will be happy to see me and ask me about what I am doing and it will be simply AWESOME!! I usually see my parents face to face about twice a year now and I treasure that time.

I wrote this yesterday. It was a very pleasant experience writing it and thinking about spending time with my family, being looked after and having a fun time talking about shared interests plus my work in autism world. My current relationship with my parents is the thing we are told we ‘should have’ through media and popular culture, but for some people this is not the experience they have. It is certainly not the experience I have always had.

At 21 I was in the psych ward, very unwell and focused on the negative influence I felt that my mother had played in my life. Dozens of frantically scribbled pages were written about how I felt her influence over me was damaging, ascribing some very unpleasant qualities about her.

The main reason I have a good relationship with my parents now is that we have all worked very hard at making this happen, but it was never easy. In my case it involved letting go of the control when required while being loving but assertive.

The issues I have with family are echoed in similar experiences by many people, including autistic adults. As autistic adults, one influencing factor in how our relationship with our parents relates to whether they are neurodivergent themselves.

Some of the issues faced by autistic children of autistic parents include:

  • Struggling to differentiate oneself from their parent/s
  • Adult children knowing their parent/s are autistic but their parents are in denial or refusing to accept this, resulting in an odd sort of dynamic
  • Parents struggling with setting and maintaining boundaries with their child and others. This can affect boundary and limit setting when children grow up creating difficulties with assertiveness and the ability working through conflict
  • Autistic parents managing their own challenges and finding it difficult to support or even be around their kids when they are struggling themselves
  • Self hatred by autistic adult or parents and the impact this can have throughout the family
  • Parents making statements which are perceived as hurtful but are not intended that way

Some of the issues which can be experienced in families with non-autistic parent/s include:

  • Adult autistic person feeling like they don’t belong in their family
  • Non-autistic parent/s having mental health and/or other health issues hence having an impact on their relationship with their autistic child in childhood and adulthood
  • Autistic adult feeling they have to somehow ‘prove themselves’ to their non-autistic family members
  • Judgmental comparisons of their non-autistic child to their autistic child — either implied or in explicit
  • Parent/s ‘grieving’ for a child who is not ‘lost’ but simply autistic
  • Family culture, teasing or belittling the autistic person.

Where one parent is non-autistic and the other is neurodivergent / autistic there can be other considerations. These include dynamics where parental disagreements are projected onto the autistic person or where autistic adult is given mixed messages by parents.

It is important to note that is not essential to have a relationship with your family. Many people make their own family of choice due to the family they were ‘given’ being abusive, discriminatory or toxic. There may come a point where some people realise they are better off without family. Society places a lot of emphasis on the importance of family and a lot of the stories we hear are based on the ideal of family which is rarely experienced. If your family is doing you more harm than good, finding people not related to you but who care and respect you is often a very good idea. Just because we are told that your family should be a safe place, full of love and care, does not always mean it is.

In my life I have spent time being institutionalised, living dependently and making poor choices that came with serious consequences. I was estranged from my family for some time and I imagine it cost my parents a great deal in anxiety being concerned for my welfare if nothing else. This added to existing pressures on my family, making our relationships very strained. My parents were always amazingly supportive and kind, standing by me though a large number of unpleasantness’s. I am going to share some of the strategies my family used to heal the rift, mostly because it is the process I know the best having lived through it. The strategies we used should translate to other families’ situations, at least in a broad terms sense.

So what did we do in my family which enabled the Facebook post I made at the start of this piece?

  • The first thing to understand is it took many years. It was a gradual process and not a process to rush
  • It required goodwill and trust on all sides
  • There was an intention to improve things between all of us. It was not driven by one individual
  • It came from a position of listening and respect, even when there were disagreements (mostly!)
  • The basis of the family was always love. I think parents and children can make some of the worst mistakes, but if the basis of their relationship is around love then it tends to eclipse those difficulties or at least make them more manageable
  • If things went wrong, there was always a will to make up and keep going
  • I had some approaches which now, in hindsight, could be viewed as maladaptive and unhelpful but in the context of family healing they were a good thing. The main one of these was my very strong will to win approval from my parents. This included working very hard at everything, getting high marks at university, finding professional work. While seeking approval is often not a very useful way of making change, in our case it was very useful and it resulted in me bridging, what I saw at the time, as a power dynamic based on my poverty
  • And finally we used one of the most useful life strategies I know that centres on the idea of doing what works for you.

I think the thing which finally sealed the rift in our family was when I asked for help when I was unwell with mental health issues in 2010. I made myself vulnerable and allowed my parents in when I needed their love and care. Like many valuable things, this was very hard to do.

I always worried I would never make peace with my parents before it was too late. I know people in that situation and it is a sad thing indeed. I am grateful to have got to this point where I am genuinely close with my family. It was a hard won thing and I appreciate it greatly. It is evident that good relationships generally don’t just happen but require love, trust, faith and struggle.

About Yenn Purkis

Yenn Purkis (formally Jeanette) is an author, presenter, autism advocate and community leader. Yenn is the author of six published books on elements of autism and has contributed to a large number of journals, books and websites. Yenn is a presenter and facilitator and regularly gives keynote presentations including at the 2013 TEDx Canberra conference. Yenn is a member of a number of committees and reference groups and is has a number of awards for leadership in the community, including the 2016 ACT Volunteer of the Year.