By Carlos Alba

There was something about my father-in-law’s behaviour that I could never quite put my finger on. From my first meeting with him, there was an uncertainty to our respective roles. I’d been in the company of previous girlfriends’ fathers and there was always an obvious power imbalance in favour of the older men. They usually took the lead in conversation, asked me questions and, if I seemed nervous, tried to put me at ease.

Andrew was silent and reticent and, while initially I put this down to shyness, he was also very certain of his grounds and opinions. My relationship with his daughter Hilary developed – we married and had three children – but I never felt like I got to know Andrew any better. The silences continued, he rarely if ever gave away any detail about himself, and conversations with him were a peculiar, stop-start affair.

Talking socially with someone usually begins with one person making an observation or voicing an opinion, which elicits a response from the other, and the process continues until it comes to a natural end or, more frequently, tangents off onto other subjects and issues. Andrew didn’t seem to understand those rules and if he did, he didn’t follow them. His observations or opinions were statements that didn’t invite a response. He didn’t seem interested in moving any discussion on.

The first suspicions that Andrew may be on the autistic spectrum came in 2010, ten years after Hilary and I married. I was, then, vaguely aware of what Asperger’s syndrome was from the 2003 novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. I read another book, Shoot the Damn Dog, by former journalist colleague Sally Brampton, in which she described the behaviour of her father, who was in his 70s before he was diagnosed. Her description of his symptoms, and the effects they had on her and other family members, immediately struck a chord with me as they were almost identical to behaviours exhibited by my father-in-law.

Andrew died three years later, aged 70, but, as a family, we continued to discuss and read about high-functioning autism, not least because it can be hereditary. I wanted to write about the subject, but I faced some difficult questions, not least being whether I had the right to do so. Was it proper or desirable discuss publicly the neurology, as I perceived it, of a family member – even one who had since passed away?

What about the effect it might have on people who knew and loved Andrew? If they objected to me writing about their parent, sibling, cousin, spouse, or friend, was that sufficient reason not to address the issue? A lot has been written about autism but comparatively little about undiagnosed, high-functioning autism. Yet millions of people live with it into middle and old age, either ignoring it and its consequences, or unaware they have it.

Part of the explanation for that is perhaps because it is a comparatively recent focus of study – Asperger’s was first given a medical classification in 1994 – and also perhaps because diagnosis is a lengthy and laborious process.

I was also unsure about whether I felt qualified to write about the subject. Is it solely the “property” of those with Asperger’s – some people would argue yes – but, if so, why should loved-ones and friends who are affected by its impact be denied a say? That didn’t seem fair to me.

There followed a long process of reading about and meeting people with the condition (some people would even question its description as a “condition”); of asking who is affected by it; who should make decisions about it and its “treatment”; and critically, who has the right to define it? Who owns it?

The compromise I reached was to write a novel – to use the “research” I’d accumulated over years of observing someone with undiagnosed Asperger’s, but to elaborate on that and the issues it raised through a character who is entirely fictional. While my experience of my father-in-law was undoubtedly the starting point for George Lovelace, the character evolved during a lengthier journey.

An important factor in my decision to write the book was that, in the final weeks of his life, Andrew accepted that he probably was on the spectrum. Like many people with high-functioning autism, he was successful professionally, highly intelligent, and articulate. As well as being curious, practical, and well-travelled, he seemed to excel in whatever he turned his hand to, including mountaineering, marathon running and ballroom dancing.

He was also solitary, friendless, humourless, highly routinised, unemotional and intractable. His disengaged, deadpan reactions to emotionally engaged situations became the stuff of enduring family anecdotes. When I told him that I had been made redundant, he smiled and walked away. In restaurants he would get up after he had finished his meal, while everyone else was still eating, and wait for us in the car park.

He arrived on our doorstep at eight o’clock one Sunday morning and, without any formalities, asked to speak to Hilary. I told him she had gone into hospital the day before, suffering from chronic stomach cramps, and that she had been kept in overnight. After staring at me blankly for a few seconds, he said: “Can I borrow your mitre saw?”

There was, however, a much more serious side to such behaviour. Hilary suffered enormously from having a father who was seemingly incapable of expressing or demonstrating emotion. If she tried to hug him, he became visibly discomfited and the closest he came to telling her that he loved her was, shortly before he died and confined to his bed, he said that she and her brother, Paul, were his greatest achievement.

Having a label to explain what could appear to be Andrew’s coldness and inhibition was a great comfort to Hilary, who had spent years feeling confused and often hurt and alienated by his seeming inability to communicate with her on anything but the shallowest level.

In writing There’s a Problem with Dad, I hope it strikes a chord with people who think they know someone with undiagnosed, high-functioning autism and that they will perhaps look at that person and their behaviour in a more understanding light.

There's a Problem with Dad by Carlos Alba is published by Ringwood on May 12. It’s available to pre order at: