From the Apple to the Tree: How a Daughter’s Asperger’s Diagnosis Affected Family Bonds

Amy Gravino was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at the age of 10, in the early 1990s when the diagnosis was misunderstood or even unheard of. She reflects on how it affected her childhood relationship with her parents.


remember falling off my bicycle when my parents got rid of the training wheels.

The pavement scraped across my knees and it hurt, the kind of pain that a thousand kisses and bowls of chicken noodle soup can’t ever seem to fix. 

Still, my mom and dad immediately rushed to my side, bandages and tubes of ointment flying around in a first-aid ballet that you come to master when you are the parent of a clumsy child.

“Mom, why do you have so many books that start with the letter A?”

I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome in 1994, at age 10. Back then, no one understood what autism was, if they’d even heard of it in the first place. The books that piled up on my mother’s nightstand were meant to give her and my father answers, to help them figure out how to help me. 

But what the books couldn’t tell us was how to be a family living with autism.

“Amy, do your homework!”

My father was three rooms away, but I heard his voice as if he were bellowing in my ear. I sat upstairs at the computer, which was where I spent most of my time as a teenager, typing to the only friends I had: online friends from different parts of the country. 

Amy Gravino with mother and father

Every day at school I fell apart, crumbled inside at my inability to fit in, to be accepted by my peers. At home, on the computer, I would put myself back together, piece by piece. I felt as though my parents didn’t understand, didn’t see how hard I was fighting to get through every day alive. How, when I couldn’t do the things they asked of me, even the simplest things, it wasn’t because I didn’t want to do them. It was because I was afraid.

I was afraid of failing. Afraid of disappointing them, afraid of disappointing myself. I was afraid that my own parents hated me. My father did not accept me as I was, having Asperger’s, and I believed that it would always be that way. And the more I believed it, the more I hated myself.

I remember falling in love for the first time. 

Like the bicycle, I rode on unsteady legs, now 3,000 miles away from my parents, where I’d moved after graduating college. The loud fights and slammed doors of my adolescence had slowly given way to trust, to my parents’ willingness to let their little girl go out into the world and become a young woman.

For the first time, it seemed like my parents believed in me, even though I had just barely begun to believe in myself.

I ended up discovering a new kind of ache through falling in love, and as before, there was no balm strong enough to dull the pain. I hadn’t told my parents about the boy in question, and I was afraid, again; afraid they’d see me as immature, and that I would lose their trust forever.

Everyone makes mistakes. But when you live on the autism spectrum, you remember those mistakes as vividly as when they first happened. You carry them with you, into your perception of yourself, and your ideas of how others see you. 

I didn’t want my parents to see me as someone incapable of living her own life. 

I remember speaking on a panel at the United Nations four years ago. As I looked into the crowd, I saw my mother and father sitting there watching me. I saw the creases at the corner of my father’s mouth as he smiled, something he’d almost never done when I was growing up. 

I look so much like him, I thought to myself. 

My heart swelled with a happiness I’d never felt before, because I knew that my parents were proud of me, and listening to me. But what matters most is that we now listen to each other.  

I guess the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree.