‘Meeting my father was a shock’

By Sara Parker

Producer, Adults with Autism

On first meeting, there is little evidence of the internal struggle Chris Goodchild faces daily as someone living with Asperger’s Syndrome, a high functioning form of autism.

“I don’t have the ability to put onto my face the distress that I feel,” says Chris, one of an estimated 500,000 people in the UK with autism spectrum disorder.

“Often we want to scream and shout, but most of us do so internally. The way we cope is to withdraw.”

Autism is a developmental condition characterised by problems in social communication with a lack of empathy towards others.

“We can get bombarded with stimulation and information and can become easily confused and overwhelmed”

People with the condition often engage in ritualistic and obsessive compulsive behaviours, as well as a very different way of thinking from the normal – that is neuro-typical – brain.

“The autistic brain is wired completely differently,” said Chris.

“We experience life with great intensity and have a very poor filtering system.

“We can get bombarded with stimulation and information and can become easily confused and overwhelmed.”

Autism was first identified in 1943 by child psychiatrist Leo Kanner in a group of boy patients.

A year later another Austrian psychiatrist Hans Asperger recognised a similar condition in children with special talents and high IQ.

This early understanding of autism meant that until recently, it was thought to be a childhood disorder.

Many adults went undiagnosed or were misdiagnosed with mental health problems, including severe illnesses such as schizophrenia.

“I had to adapt to what other people thought was normal, to survive.”

Long struggle

Now 43, Chris was diagnosed with Asperger’s only 18 months ago.

For years he struggled with depression and anxiety as he tried to conceal his autistic traits behind a façade of learnt, socially-acceptable behaviour.

“I hid my unusualness, those feelings of being bad, mad, crazy, deranged,” he said.

“I had to adapt to what other people thought was normal, to survive.”

Adopted at six weeks old, he describes a ‘hunger to be loved and a fear of rejection’.

But he would recoil from being touched or hugged, as well as alarming those around him with strange mannerisms and self-comforting behaviour such as rocking.

At school, he was isolated and unable to concentrate because he found the environment noisy and confusing.

Neither his adoptive parents nor his teachers realised what was wrong and at 15, he left with no qualifications and started on a downward spiral of depression, ending up in a psychiatric hospital for a year on anti-psychotic medication.

For most of his adult life, Chris has found it difficult to hold down a job or maintain close relationships.

He has a young son whom he sees regularly, but found it impossible to live with the mother because of the stress of intimacy and his obsessive need for an ordered life of rigid routines.

Shared traits

When he was 20, he traced his natural father and was shocked to discover he shared what he later recognised, were autistic traits.

“Seeing him was like seeing Asperger’s unleashed,” said Chris.

“The man looked like Rasputin with long unwashed hair, dressed only in a pair of underpants with a sheet round him and cobwebs on the sheet.

“He had no desire to wash at all and was a hoarder with things piled up around him.

“In many ways I saw myself without my façade or cloak of normality and it drove me further underground to be nothing like him at all.”

There is evidence from research, particularly with twins, that autism can be inherited.

On-going studies also indicate that hormones in the womb such as testosterone can influence development and MRI scans have revealed differences not only in brain structure, including increased numbers of nerve cells, but also in the way the brain works.

There are so many factors involved in autism that diagnosis is often difficult and needs lengthy clinical assessments and observation.

Chris only realised a few years ago that he might be autistic after meeting a boy with autism at his son’s birthday party.

Finally a diagnosis

After years of misdiagnosis with mental health problems, he had given up on the NHS and he turned instead to the National Autistic Society for help.

“I’d reached a point where I didn’t want to live any longer,” he said.

“I was depressed and self-harming because I couldn’t cope with this cloud of unknowing.

“Without a diagnosis, I would have killed myself.”

For Chris, diagnosis has been self-affirming.

“Having Asperger’s Syndrome is a gifted way of seeing the world,” he said.

“It can be a painful gift but I now have a framework to manage myself and the realisation that those parts of me, which I hid away, are not mad or bad.”

Adult autism is now high on the government’s agenda and a report is due for publication before the end of the year with the promise of a national strategy to improve the lives and opportunities for those living with something which Chris describes as “not a label or illness but a way of being ”

‘Adults with Autism’ will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday 29 September at 2100 hours, repeated on Wednesday 30 September at 1630 hours.

from bbc news