Despite his dementia and her autism, my father and my daughter make a connection
man and a woman holding hands at a wooden table

I touch my father’s shoulder to let him know we’re here, but – for the first time – he doesn’t recognize me. My daughter Charlotte notices and hides a quiet weep. I start to worry. Dad’s memory has deteriorated even in the last month. I wonder whether I should have brought her, but she wanted to see him. Like many with autism, Charlotte is deadly honest and unafraid of difficult questions. However, like most 15-year-olds, she’s not used to watching Alzheimer’s progress so quickly.

Now, Charlotte and my Dad face each other across the empty table. Both look uncertain. My heartbeat floods the silence between them. They seem subdued in this strange environment, a Home that is not a home. My anxiety makes my ears splinter. Charlotte reaches her hand across the table. Dad looks at it for a long minute, not sure what she’s doing. She leaves it there, resting halfway between them. Then instinct kicks in and he grasps her hand: the dignity of a man who knows this gesture is important while not knowing exactly who we are. Perhaps he is responding to the need for a kind touch or – ever the gentleman – recognizing an offering that would be rude to decline. I can’t see inside the workings of his mind. In Charlotte, often a mystery, I see the grace of a girl who has figured out how to navigate societal structures not designed for her. Who recognizes another human’s unspoken need. Who is drenched with love and sorrow for her grandfather. It occurs to me that her daily battle of figuring out why neurotypicals (people without autism) act as they do has given her an advantage in facing these moments that shift our lives.

Read more in the Globe and Mail.

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