My Father died in 1979 of a heart attack. It was his third major coronary, but even so it was a shock.
I was in my second year at university and, despite high academic success, having a rough time personally. I had ongoing problems with my throat (quinsy) which resulted in an operation, but also psychological issues which I now recognise were down to my undiagnosed autism. The psychiatrists and doctors I saw at that time completely failed to spot that problem, which is not surprising given the state of autism diagnosis in those days.
Looking back, I think my father probably tried his best to deal with me. He was ill-equipped to do so. As a traditional Christian disciplinarian, his only frame of reference for me was wilful disobedience, as I failed to conform to everything he expected. I was constantly disapproved of and frequently punished. The only time that changed was in my first year at university when I achieved very high marks in exams and was top of the class. For the first, and possibly only, time in my life, he showed genuine approval of my achievements.
But how could he have done so? I was a composer, something that was completely alien to him, and I refused to follow him into the family engineering business. I was terrible at sport, which he loved. But most of all my brain just would not function in the way he thought good. We had so many challenging encounters it is hard to describe them in detail, but the gist of them was that I thought in a divergent way whereas he was entirely convergent. In other words, any initial stimulus would set me off into a train of speculative reasoning that led to creative outcomes, whereas he wanted to gather facts and information in order to find a straightforward solution to any problem or situation.
“Look at me when I’m talking to you!” he would shout as, yet again, I failed to make eye contact. “It’s just common sense!” “Are you thick or something?” And, most tellingly: “you’re just trying to be different!”. The problem, I now know, was that I am different. I’m not trying to be anything. I am simply ‘wired’ differently. What he saw as wilful disobedience was just honesty. I was never a naughty child.
I try to be fair to him, despite the fact that I had to go into counselling some years later to try to resolve the many issues in my relationship with him. The counsellor also failed to spot my autism, once again because autism was not well recognised at that time. But my memories of my father are often negative. We were very different. I read voraciously, whereas he was proud of never having read a book in his life. He was an authoritarian right-winger who strongly supported Margaret Thatcher, whereas I was always left-leaning and believed in freedom. He seemed to dedicate himself to diminishing and suppressing me as much as possible.
But I do wonder whether, had I had an autism diagnosis then rather than now, would that have changed his attitude? I think he did have the capacity for sympathy and understanding. He struggled with me because he was frustrated by me. He went away to National Service and returned when I was three years old to find a difficult and problematic child. He probably blamed my mother for that. If only he had known, perhaps life could have been very different…