What my father taught me about neurodiversity

Dr. Vibha Krishnamurthy doesn’t know why her father is different but enjoys the honest and loving person he is.

Updated - March 27, 2023 04:38 pm IST

Published - March 03, 2023 09:00 am IST

Representative illustration.

Representative illustration. | Photo Credit: OpenClipart-Vectors

My kids were 9 and 6 when I received an email from my father with the subject line “Joke – read this out to the kids”. Knowing dad, I thought I should read it first. The title, “What exciting thing begins with F and ends with K”, helped me make up my mind. It was a smutty joke about a kid being asked a series of double entendre questions. The answers were always innocuous – the F____K one was “fire truck”. Dad’s interpretation was literal and naïve. He doesn’t get double entendres. When I told my mother and sister the story, they were amused but not surprised. It was so typically dad. 

For years he has wondered what we find funny about ‘Asterix’, ‘Friends’ or P.G. Wodehouse. Reading the Sunday papers when we were kids, he would hold out the ‘Peanuts’ strip in the comics page to me and my sister and ask, “Why do you both find this funny? Explain it to me! What’s the joke?” We hated to explain because then it wouldn’t be funny anymore, but he needed to demystify what his daughters found amusing. A couple of decades later, though, he totally got his grandchildren’s sense of humour. When my kids called out “Thatha come fast! Tom and Jerry is on!” he would dash over to snuggle up and cackle with them on the couch.

You’ve probably concluded that my father isn’t exactly the sharpest tool in the shed. Not true: dad is one of the smartest people I know. At 88, he knows more about neuroscience, quantum physics, astronomy, and the evolution of humans than most professionals in the field. And he’s learnt it all on his own – after getting a PhD in chemical engineering. But if I read him the first sentence of this paragraph he would be baffled. What shed? Which tools?

He doesn’t get metaphors and most of the time sarcasm passes him by. He’s shy with strangers, but once he gets started, he can go on for an hour on one of his favourite topics. Once we rescued a kind computer repair mechanic who’d been trapped in the study with dad for over an hour. He had a wild panicked look in his eyes. All he’d done was to ask dad what he looks up on the computer. This led to a detailed explanation of why there is no such thing as ‘race’ because the journey of man from Africa has been documented through mitochondrial DNA to… you get the drift.

The thought that he might be on the autism spectrum has crossed both my mind and his. He feels maybe he’s not autistic because what he’s read doesn’t match what he experiences. But while it doesn’t matter very much to either of us, it does make me think about the fundamental problem with diagnostic categories: they have a cookbook approach that can’t cope with nuances. They tell you what’s wrong with people with autism – the ‘deficits’ in social communication and the ‘restricted’ range of interests. They don’t tell you that my dad is a funny, loving, honest, and smart person who truly doesn’t care what you are wearing or who you are in the social hierarchy. It doesn’t tell you that what I feel when I am with my dad is not ‘tolerance’ or ‘acceptance’ or even filial affection; I simply love hanging out with him.

I know exactly where I stand with my dad. We can spend hours reading quietly together, with no expectation of conversation or entertainment from either of us. If I ask for an honest opinion, I will get one, but if I don’t ask, he won’t offer. The only parenting advice he has ever given me was one evening when my kids were driving me crazy. I rolled my eyes and said, “What do I do with these kids?” He answered quietly: “Play with them. They miss you in the evenings.” It’s the only parenting advice I followed diligently.

I don’t mean to trivialise the double empathy problem: it presents a challenge when he doesn’t get some of us and we don’t get him. A typical situation in my parents’ home is when they have decided to have folks over for dinner. My mother enjoys entertaining, and my dad is delighted when she makes her signature dish for special occasions: sambar with the little onions. At dinner time, the guests start serving themselves, and my mother watches in agony as dad fishes for all the little onions in the sambar at his third helping. She catches his eye, widens hers and shakes her head imperceptibly. He stops with the ladle mid-air. “What are you trying to say? Huh? Oh, I see. I shouldn’t eat more because there aren’t enough? Okay.” My mother, the gracious host, wishes the earth would open up and swallow her.

As for dad, he gets frustrated at family gatherings when we are all chatting, and there is no move towards the dinner table at 7.45 pm. We forget the time when the alarm bell in his mind goes off for dinner (“It’s 7.45 and I must be hungry,” his inner voice says). He gets anxious, starts fidgeting and becomes irritable.

But we get by, because over the years my mother has learnt to put extra onions in the sambar and invite guests who understand my father, and the rest of us set a phone alarm for 7.45pm when we come to my parents’ home for dinner. On his part, Dad succumbs with good grace to being part of occasional family outings to restaurants, when he has been forewarned that dinner may be at 9 pm. 

In the last couple of decades, I have recognised more family members and friends who are on the autism spectrum. The eye does not see what the mind does not know, and now my mind knows. I have enjoyed discovering new things about the world and myself when I am with each one of them. I find it restful to be with a person like my dad who doesn’t make social demands on me. As a clinician, I wonder how to use this personal knowledge to help the families I see. I know how to support a child with speech delay so that they develop language.

But where do I bring in the possibility of enjoying a child who is different? I witness the journey of so many families, fraught with the challenges of getting others to accept and include their child. Autistic adults diagnosed late in life talk about the relief of getting a diagnosis, of finally understanding that they are not bad or defective – just different. It makes me wonder why we don’t protest a culture where you are made to feel there is something wrong with you if you are different from those who are powerful in the social pecking order. What if, instead of trying to ‘fix’ people who are different from us, we each learn to be curious about them: How do they communicate? What are they good at? What can I learn from them?

I don’t claim to have resolved this for myself. I am not yet enlightened enough to accept differences in people I encounter with curiosity and no judgement. But having dad as a reference point is helpful when I meet someone I don’t fully understand. It makes me pause and reflect more often before I judge.

My father lived in a simpler world. He went to school in a small government school in Salem, Tamil Nadu. He excelled at learning and that was enough for his school. He did not have to contend with gossip in the lunchroom or social media messages that said he was not as good as the others. Somehow, he managed to glide through work in an engineering firm, unscathed and oblivious to any criticism on his social skills. He remains immersed in his pursuit of knowledge and retains his wonder and curiosity about the world. With all the scientific information he is tracking, he is convinced that the world will get better for his grandchildren and their children.

I have diagnosed him with a severe case of hopefulness, and we bask in the sunshine of his label.

Vibha Krishnamurthy is a developmental paediatrician and the founder of Ummeed Child Development Centre in Mumbai. She has been working with children with disabilities and their families for 25 years.

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