I did not find a doctor who noted that my daughter and I appeared to be on the autism spectrum until I was forty and my daughter seven. That was nearly ten years ago. Since that time, I have tried to understand the rather odd behaviors of generations of my family–five generations to be exact. One of the oddest behaviors was the compulsion to chase fire trucks.
As the story in my family goes, long before I was born, my maternal great grandfather apparently started this compulsive “family tradition.” As was typical of the time, large family gatherings were common and a lot of the family lived not too far from one another in a major US city. At these gatherings, any time of the day or night, if a fire truck went down the street nearby, everyone stopped what they were doing immediately, piled into their cars and went to the fire. It did not matter if it was midnight or they were in the middle of dinner, everything had to immediately stop so that they all could go watch the fire. How long everyone stood around and watched the fire is not clear.
One of the interesting parts of this strange behavior is my great grandfather did not have to be present for it to occur. Additionally, there did not have to even be a family gathering for this behavior to start. Frequently, my mother would arrive at a fire and usually bump into her cousins there. They would have all arrived at the fire independently from various directions and without knowing that any of the others were going to be there.
I have asked my father if he ever went to these fires when he married into the family. He said he went one time: When he and my mother were getting ready for bed one night, my mother heard the fire truck, and then insisted they had to go to the fire. He said he refused to indulge in the behavior after that. He just tolerated that my mother had to go to fires.
I remember as a very young child my mother taking me to a couple of fires. I don’t remember any details. I just remember that at one point my mother stopped going. My mother permanently stopped the behavior when she got smoke inhalation at one of the fires–which caused her to have chronic sinusitis after that.
As far as I can tell, no one in the family ever discussed this behavior as to why it happened or thought they needed to get any type of professional assistance to stop it. Medical professionals discuss in the literature that obsessive-compulsive behavior (OCD) in those on the autism spectrum differs from those who just have OCD in that the ones with autism do not find the repetitive behaviors and thoughts bothersome; whereas, those with just OCD do. In my mother’s case, she did not find going to fires bothersome until she acquired a physical problem because of the behavior.
I thought that I had escaped this compulsive “family tradition.” After all, I never followed a fire truck going to a fire…ever. What I did not realize, until my analysis of the family in these last few years, is I did not escape it–I just manifested it a little differently. Exhibit “A” was I grew up in the 1970’s during which time my first favorite television show was “Emergency.” To say that I was obsessed with watching the paramedics and firemen, with lights and sirens blaring, go to emergency calls on a weekly basis was putting it mildly. I had great anxiety if I was unable to watch this show.
The obsessiveness did not end there. When I started college, I spent my weekends riding with volunteer paramedics and EMTs, lights and sirens blaring, going to emergency calls. I then went to school to become an EMT and continued to go on calls. Unfortunately, during the time I rode on ambulances, one of the complaints I received was that I had difficulty jumping in and managing the patients hands on. I seemed to prefer to observe. I eventually moved on to another line of work.
I have watched my daughter for signs that she is going to take after the “family tradition.” She would be the fifth generation. Thankfully, she has shown no interest in chasing fire trucks like her grandmother or being an EMT like her mother was. (Not that being an EMT is a bad thing; I just would not want her to go into that line of work because of a lights and sirens compulsion). No, she wants to go into the military or the national guard and see “lots of action.” She is still too young to join, so we’ll see when the time comes if she undertakes what appears to be yet another manifestation of the “family tradition.”