Autistic History: My Grandfather’s Story


People ask, “Where are the autistics of ages past?”

I can name one: World War I hero, Purple Heart recipient, and mental hospital veteran—my grandfather, W. B. Mueller.

Grandpa served on the infamous Western Front. He told few horror stories, except to say rain fell interminably, dysentery was widespread, and rats ate the dead and the living with equal zest. He also recalled that the murky trench water emitted a stench so profound it permeated his provisions. Grandpa swore every meal tasted like corpses.

As he crouched in the trenches, shells exploded above him with furious violence, shredding soldiers in the line of fire. One such shell barrage pinned down Grandpa’s squad outside Château-Thierry. Five marines perished beside him. A pinkie-sized shell fragment tore through Grandpa’s leg, lodging at an irretrievable depth.

Western Front

Grandpa would have recuperated quickly and returned to battle in modern times, but without antibiotics, he became gravely ill. Months of infection dragged into years of chronic pain. A decade later, his leg was amputated. The ill-performed surgery left Grandpa with an often painful sometimes itchy phantom limb.

After the war, an intractable terror of roiling, murky water dogged Grandpa. He traversed bridges shaking and white-fisted. My Dad recalls dark flourishes of sweat spreading across Grandpa’s suit as he drove over the nearby Fort Loudon Dam for annual family gatherings.

Following one such trip, Grandpa incinerated his war memorabilia along with piles of neatly raked autumn leaves. No one connected the horror of trench warfare to Grandpa’s phobia of turbid, churning water.

Post-discharge, the American Textile Woolen Company hired Grandpa as a fabric designer and supervisor. Promotions and decades of prosperity followed. He proudly purchased a home and a procession of automobiles which he used to impress my much younger Grandmother.

He also flattered Grandmother with frighteningly sappy poems and letters, a delight to her twenty- year-old heart.  Grandpa continued to write odd verses and jingles throughout their marriage. He entered his creations in five and ten dollar contests. The prizes were a boon during the Depression and allowed my Grandmother to buy a wild assortment of hats and dresses. Grandpa hit the jackpot a several times, winning grand prizes ($50!) and publishing poetry in regional magazines.

Great Grandpa
The family’s affluent life evaporated after the textile plant closed in the 1940s, but not for lack of opportunity.

Grandfather, a valued artist and designer, was given a remarkable chance: a paid relocation to a newer, larger factory in Missouri.

However, this did not motivate Grandpa.

He refused to leave his house or hometown and rebuffed my grandmother’s pleas to accept the offer. She wrote in her journals that she suspected “his scorn for change” and “river jitters” underlay his refusals. In an ill-fated move, he turned his backroom hobby—gun repair—into a profession.

No one realized that the textile plant provided Grandpa with much more than an income. It supplied him stability and structure—a place to be, a job to do, and none of the social schmoozing a small business requires.

The expanse of self-employed free time dazzled and distracted him. Repairing guns and rifles in a timely and consistent fashion proved to be an unattainable challenge.  The Athens Gun Club failed.  Grandpa spent the one year anniversary of his venture at the Central State Hospital for the Insane.

Letters Collection

Unlike my schizophrenic Uncle Leo, who was floridly delusional or my bipolar Uncle Will, who absconded with a school bus to sell pretzels along the East coast, Grandpa did not exhibit psychosis. Nor did he drink, take narcotics, or skip out on debts. He simply succumbed to episodes of “hysterical anxiety” and vanished, reemerging in a mental ward within a few days.

Perplexed doctors had no word for grandpa’s condition other than “mental illness” and his complaints of an aching phantom limb contributed to this assessment. Rest and rejected pain medications were their only recourse. Within a week, Grandpa stabilized and returned home.

“Nervous spells” and hospitalizations followed Grandpa for the remainder of his days. Likewise, stigma shadowed him, causing Doctors to manage him with a disheartening skepticism and restraint.

Death found Grandpa’s several months after a freak accident.  A falling brick glanced off his head, causing a concussion and trigeminal neuralgia. Also known as “the suicide disease” for the agony it elicits, trigeminal neuralgia produced such intense and prolonged facial pain that he insisted on radical experimental surgery for relief.  Grandpa died on the operating table as surgeons severed the affected nerves. It was his 68th birthday.

When we speak of advocacy, we look forward, toward our progeny. Let us also look backward, to our ancestors, who bore grief and heartache without understanding why.

Recognition is a fine memorial wreath.

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34 thoughts on “Autistic History: My Grandfather’s Story

  1. Such a beautiful recounting of your grandfather’s life story. It’s so important for people to know that people on the spectrum have been around for a long long time.

    It sounds like your grandfather’s unnamed mental illness may have been in part PTSD? I know they called it battle fatigue or shellshock back then, but I think doctors were less aware of how long lasting the symptoms could be and maybe weren’t adept at diagnosing it in people who were years or decades past the original trauma. <—- minor special interest 🙂

    1. Thank you for sharing your insight. I am very curious about PTSD. I spent months researching for this post and most of my life wondering about Grandpa’s troubles. I suggested the connection between the water phobia and the war, partly because I’d read family journals and first person accounts from WW I. It was beyond grueling. Could I shoot you a few questions, later? If you have any PTSD links to recommend, I’d really appreciate it!

      1. The National Center for PTSD has a lot of general educational materials on their website: They also have the largest database of PTSD related literature (PILOTS) but I think you need an account to access it.

        There are also some books that address the historical trajectory of PTSD over the past century (like this one that you might be able to find at your local library or through intra-library loan.

        PBS has some excerpts from a documentary about the history of PTSD with links to more here:

        I don’t want to overwhelm you so I’ll stop. 🙂 You can definitely shoot me questions. If I can’t answer, I can probably find you other sources. You have my email address?

        1. This is perfect! I meant to get back to you much sooner, but we are on vacation and the wi-fi does not work in our room, necessitating social interaction at the local hot spot!

          PTSD id a bigger field than I realized, but cursory searches reveal that spectrumites are more vulnerable. Thanks again for the links. After I get my brain caught up with my post-vacation jitters, I can devote more time to research.

  2. Riveting!!!! What a profound and important idea, and also a love song to your Grandfather. Thanks! Also, with @musingsofanaspie, I would agree that PTSD may have been a part of it. As someone both on the spectrum and suffering from PTSD, there is some overlap, though I love my spectrum and, ahem, dislike my PTSD. Love,

    1. I appreciate your encouragement! I also appreciate you mentioning PTSD. I am very intrigued. @musingsofanaspie and you have fired my mind. I will be investigating this much more. I love my spectrum too, and I’d especially love to know more about my family. My most traumatic experience was public school, I cannot imagine the strength and courage others have. <3

      1. Yes, my son is headed into seventh grade in public school…HUGE fingers crossed here and I will do whatever it takes for him to not go through what you and I did, including homeschooling (cannot afford private, though have heard some stories of districts paying…hmmm…). Love and thanks,

        1. Alas! We have also dreamed of alternate school arrangements. We have a great team, but T’s profile is so unique, I worry about having all of his needs met. One day, I’d love to home school, but for now I have just enough executive function to keep the house running!

          I am glad, however, to have a son instead of a daughter. Middle school can be grueling for girls!

  3. This was lovely. I agree we should look backwards as well as forwards.
    Every time I read Temple Grandin’s words or watch her, I am so strongly reminded of my grandmother. <3

  4. This is fascinating and beautifully-written. I’m not sure, though, on what basis you diagnosis your late grandfather with autism. I’m sure you have strong reason to do so, but it was unclear to me from reading this, since I didn’t read anything here that sounded categorically like autistic behavior and could not have been attributed to other conditions. I’m just curious.

    1. Thank you for the question, I struggled with this issue as I wrote my article. I decided to write about Grandpa’s life instead of why our family diagnosed him.

      We have three diagnosed generations of Asperger’s in our family–my son, my self, and my 81 year old Dad, establishing a strong family history of autism. We also have decades of my Grandmother’s journals detailing her life with Grandpa that clearly reflect his many autistic traits. These things plus my father’s recollections form our opinion concerning autism.

      I’d like to post one day about our genealogy and lineage of autistic traits, but it is so overwhelming! Thank you for encouraging me to take a deeper look.

      Lori D.

  5. I am an autistic adult in Atlanta, and we need to talk. I have spent my senior year at Agnes Scott college doing extensive research on Central State Hospital. I plan to publish and want some patient and family member perspectives. Very little of that has ever been written down, which strikes me as a shame. Those are critical voices to include, and they would make it much easier to get a clear picture. Trying to piece together what happened from what all those nineteenth and twentieth century doctors were willing to admit, alongside what reporters recorded in the occasional exposes, has been tough.

    I am not sure whether your family is still in Georgia. If not, I want you to know that you could do a lot of good by speaking up. Spending a year becoming a CSH expert has taught me that our past around disability issues is absolutely barbaric. Georgia needs to face this past and stop whining about supporting disabled people and mental health consumers. At this point, anything they do is paying debts and making reparations for scores of people who suffered and died, often unnecessarily, at the hands of the state. The more I learn, the more ‘never shutting up about this’ has become a pet cause of mine.

    I have IRB approval and everything. If you are comfortable discussing this period of your family’s history in greater detail, I want to make sure more people hear your invaluable story. If you know of other families who might speak to this, I want to talk to them, too. I am happy to use pseudonyms. I apologize if I ended up spamming you by clicking things a lot of times. This version of Firefox and my computer are not getting along.

    1. Hello!

      Please forgive my short response, at the end of a busy week I need a bit of down time! I would be very happy to help in any way that I can, however, my Grandfather was from Tennessee, not Georgia. If I can still help, let me know. I will get back to you very soon. I deeply appreciate the type of work you are doing and would be delighted to help in anyway. Thank you so much.

      Lori D.

  6. Reblogged this on bunnyhopscotch and commented:
    People on the spectrum have been around since the beginning of humanity. We just didn’t have a name to our brilliance and our demons. We coped. We built resilience. We lived. We died. I applaud today’s growing knowledge, awareness and hope for acceptance of neurodiversities. But let us not forget to build in ourselves and our children the same determined resilience that our neurodiverse forefathers had.

  7. This captured my attention from the first sentence. You have such a powerful way with words. I agree – how difficult it must have been in the days before raised mental health awareness; it is bad enough these days, even with increased understanding.

    1. Thank you for appreciating my post and my message. The older I get the more I realize how hard people have had it over the ages. I am proud of the how tolerance and understanding have increased just in the past 10 years. The youth of today will shape an even finer world.


  8. This was very lovely! I hope you will consider submitting it for Autistic History Month in November! Such a beautiful essay and so full of love! Thank you for writing it.

    1. I would be honored! I actually wrote it for last year’s Autistic History Month, but I couldn’t finish in time! I’ll be celebrating with you this year in a timely fashion!

      Much thanks!
      Lori D.

  9. Reblogged this on Aspie Under Your Radar and commented:
    This sounds so familiar to me. Lots of elders in my family fit the profile. The world used to be structured in a way that made room for them in different ways and let them excel under more conditions than we have now. It wasn’t always easy for them – in fact, many of them suffered intensely. But there was never a question of whether or not they were fully human and deserved to be part of society.

    1. Thank you for sharing. You eloquently summed up years of our family’s thinking. I miss filing papers in the 80s! Clerical work cleansed my souls. When did it start, the idea of autistics being less than? I suspect in the 1990s. I babysat and watched children’s cartoons based on friendship and getting along together well (muppet babies, I mean you). I felt deficient just watching. “Clifford the Big Red Dog” still gives me the cold sweats with its tow the social line messages.

      We need radical inclusion, acceptance, and role models.

      Thank you for visiting with me.

      Lori D.

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