How Autism Affects Loved Ones – The Allure of Emotional Self-Imprisonment


It’s no secret that the symptoms of Autism (ASD) greatly affects a person’s ability to associate and socialize with others. Deficits in reading social cues and reciprocating emotions make even the most basic of social interactions an exercise of great self-frustration. However, what many often don’t realize is that the symptoms that negatively impact the ability to socialize in people with Autism, also greatly impact the social lives of their families and loved ones. Studies investigating the family dynamics of children diagnosed with ASD revealed striking similarities of symptoms present in siblings. Siblings of those with Autism were found to have lower than average IQ scores, reading, and grammatical abilities compared to those children without siblings with Autism (Fombonne et al., 1997). Parents also presented similar signs of symptoms, scoring higher on Autism-spectrum Quotient–a test designed to assist with the diagnosis of ASD–than those without children with Autism (Hasegawa et al., 2015).

Both of these cases represent a phenomenon called the Broader Autism Phenotype, or BAP for short. BAP is often seen in the immediate family of children with Autism, with prevalence rates being higher among males–as is true with mainline ASD diagnoses. Having BAP is linked with lower scores of social skills and creative thinking, and higher self-scores of social anxiety and perceived loneliness (Lamport & Zlomke, 2014). Individuals with BAP are also more susceptible to insecure attachment styles, such as an excessive need for emotional validation or a tendency to mistrust others. The combination of deficits in social and emotional intelligence significantly predispose such individuals to issues with maintaining interpersonal relationships (Lamport & Turner, 2014). Due to its concentration around immediate family members and its predominant occurrence in males, BAP seems likely to have a genetic component in its cause. But other factors such as family dynamics and parenting styles–whether overly strict or overly loose–seem to also have a significant role in its occurrence (Mohammadi & Zarafshan, 2014).

Whether or not you are diagnosed with BAP, being the sibling of a person with Autism always comes with its own set of challenges. The typical social pressures everyone goes through during their K-12 years become compounded with seeming endless questions about your sibling’s condition. 

    “Why is he like that?”                              “Why doesn’t he talk?”                                      

                               “Was he in an accident?”                                                     

                                                                                      “Is he going to get better?”

The need to constantly explain your sibling’s condition becomes emotionally taxing, leading to greater anxiety whenever you go out into the community with him. In the absence of seemingly endless scrutiny you begin to treasure isolation and solitude as your only solace from a world that sees your sibling not as a person but as an object. One to be examined, to be fixed—to be ridiculed. As the years go by, the metaphorical bubble you’ve created to tune out the scrutiny becomes your prison cell, near-permanently reducing your social life to the occasional birthday party and after school hangout. You see your friends go on to win championships and science fairs, enjoy romantic flings, create lifetime bonds forged by the nostalgic insignificance and irresponsibility of adolescent life–all opportunities sacrificed for the sake of maintaining your illusion of solace.  

The reality for myself, and for the many others living with a sibling or loved one diagnosed with Autism, is that isolation only serves to strengthen the very stigmas that drive your fears. In your desire to protect you and your loved one, you not just squander the opportunity to live your life, but also squander the opportunity to share to the world the joy and love you see in your brother, sister, cousin, or significant other. Focus not on the medical diagnosis, for it reduces them to a mere object needing to be fixed. Instead, share to the world the person who cheers you up whenever you’re having a rough day, who shares his food with you, who dances and jumps for joy alongside you when you celebrate in triumph.

Because the best way to rid yourself of the world’s ugly scrutiny starts with how you face it.

References:

Fombonne, E., Bolton, P., Prior, J., Jordan, H., & Rutter, M. (1997). A family study of autism: cognitive patterns and levels in parents and siblings. Journal Of Child Psychology And Psychiatry And Allied Disciplines, (6), 667.

Hasegawa, C., Kikuchi, M., Yoshimura, Y., Hiraishi, H., Munesue, T., Nakatani, H., & … Minabe, Y. (2015). Broader autism phenotype in mothers predicts social responsiveness in young children with autism spectrum disorders. Psychiatry And Clinical Neurosciences, (3), 136.

Mohammadi, M., & Zarafshan, H. (2014). Family function, Parenting Style and Broader Autism Phenotype as Predicting Factors of Psychological Adjustment in Typically Developing Siblings of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Iranian Journal Of Psychiatry, 9(2), 55-63.

Lamport, D., & Turner, L. A. (2014). Romantic attachment, empathy, and the broader autism phenotype among college students. The Journal Of Genetic Psychology, 175(3-4), 202-213.

Lamport, D., & Zlomke, K. (2014). The Broader Autism Phenotype, Social Interaction Anxiety, and Loneliness: Implications for Social Functioning. Current Psychology, 33(3), 246-255.

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