Bullying or Joking Around?

Today my wife went to The Warren Center to attend a presentation on bullying and special needs children. The presenter suggested that we encourage Daniel to engage in self-advocacy, that we perhaps should have his teacher discuss with the class the fact that Daniel has autism and what that means–if Daniel agreed to it (which he has), and that we role-play certain scenarios.

We decided to try a role-playing scenario. Anna pretended to be a mean girl insulting our daughter, Melina; then, I pretended to be Melina’s friend just joking around.

Anna: Oh, hi, Melina. Wearing those glasses you look like a real nerd.

Me: Was that mean, or just joking around?

Daniel: It was mean.

So far, so good. I then went.

Me, in a playful voice: Hey, nerd! What’s up?

Anna: Was that mean, or just joking around?

Daniel: It was mean.

There’s little question that anyone not autistic would have very easily picked up that I was joking. If you’re an autistic adult, you would probably even pick up on it from the umpteen times you’ve seen people interacting just that way and having a laugh about it. But Daniel just turned 9, and he’s still learning.

The problem is that we cannot trust Daniel’s judgment on whether or not he’s being bullied. He’s saying his friends are being mean to him, but it’s not impossible that his friends (assuming for a minute he’s making the right judgment that they are in fact his friends) are just joking around with him and he’s misunderstanding the social situation. He also wants to be loyal to his friends, so he is loathe to mention anything negative about them. He doesn’t want to lose the friends he has, regardless of how they may (or may not) be treating him.

Hopefully, if and when his classmates are given the presentation about Daniel’s autism that the bullying will stop. We’ll probably have to have them address the issue of Daniel’s difficulty understanding playful banter among friends, where you insult each other to show camaraderie, precisely because Daniel doesn’t understand it and may be mistaking it for being mean.

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Magic

Today Daniel told me that he wanted to develop a new talent. He said he wants to learn magic. And not just any kind of magic: strange magic.

He wants to be able to change butterflies into any color he wants.

He wants to be able to tell butterflies to do what he wants.

He wants to be able to tell what everybody is feeling at all times.

Yes, Daniel considers the ability to tell what everyone is feeling at all times to be magic. And not just magic, but strange magic. If he learns magic, he’ll be able to understand how people feel.

To us, you neurotypicals are a mystery, and it can only take the power of magic to uncover that mystery. Remember that the next time you look at your autistic child and wonder if you’ll ever truly understand them and what they’re thinking and feeling.

Sharing a Co-Morbidity Doesn’t Mean Autism Doesn’t Exist

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My wife shared this image on Facebook. The things surrounding “autism” are all things that can be co-morbid with it. For example, I have general anxiety disorder–meaning I have anxiety all day every day–but I don’t have Tourette’s. Not everyone who has general anxiety disorder has autism, of course, but if you are autistic, you have general anxiety disorder. And not everyone with Tourette’s is autistic, but a higher percentage of autistics have Tourette’s.
 
There are those who think that having daily rituals is having OCD. Having rituals is not really quite OCD. Rituals are a way to create order in life, and is therefore something you will find autistics doing at much higher rates than, again, the non-autistic population. True OCD would involve someone who cannot leave a room without turning the light switch on and off exactly 15 times each time, or who gets “fascinated” by a shoe for 30 minutes straight. Or it may involve being unable to stop thinking about something all the time–such as sharks, for example, or in my case, self-organizing scale free network processes. The benefit of having what one could call “OCD thinking” is that one can become a scientists or scholar, and then you’re actually paid for what you can’t stop thinking about. You can get a Ph.D. with that way of thinking.
 
Of course, if you’re always thinking about certain things, if your brain is always running at 150 mph, you may have a hard time paying attention. My own hyperactivity is mostly in my thoughts, but Daniel has a hard time sitting still unless he’s involved in his obsessions. Which simply means his hyperactivity is internalized.
 
These things themselves come from the fact that the autistic brain is dominated by positive feedback. Complex systems like the brain have a combination of positive and negative feedback. Negative feedback helps to keep things in equilibrium. The thermostat for your heater/AC uses negative feedback to keep the temperature the same. If you had a positive feedback thermostat, the hotter the room became, the hotter the heater would try to make the room. Things go faster the faster they go. Hyperactivity then occurs because you’re getting overstimulated. This can then push over into a situation where you become overwhelmed by the situation. Reactions to this can include extreme escape behaviors, banging your body against a wall while becoming non-responsive, or having an outright meltdown where you cannot control your actions. The overstimulation occurs in no small part because we also have sensory integration disorder. That means we have a hard time separating out visual input from sound from touch from all of the rest of our sensory input. I experience it as a feeling that my mind is being crumpled up like a piece of paper and everything goes black.
 
I also come with some extreme sensitivities. I cannot stand to have my wrists touched. I jump every time someone does that. I want to remove my skin to get away. But I try to downplay my reactions because people will just think it’s “weird.”
 
Autism is a fundamental structural difference in the way the brain is wired and works. It results in a very distinct set of behaviors. Yet, it is a spectrum, and that spectrum goes from truly debilitating (what is now called Autism 3) through “high-functioning” (Autism 2) to Asperger’s/Autism 1 and, I would argue, ADD/ADHD. Yes, most of the elements which are often co-morbid with autism can be found elsewhere. I have a slight tendency toward manic-depression, but there are certainly people with manic-depression who aren’t autistic, and there are people with crippling depression who aren’t autistic. Yet, those are found among autistics at much higher rates.
 
Those who like to throw around the argument that “autism” is a “mere label” are really just trying to downplay some very concrete elements of reality. There are some things that are “mere labels,” and some things that absolutely are not. Having structural and biochemical differences in my brain that result in my mind being very different from non-autistic people isn’t a label. It’s an acknowledgement of that reality. I’ve enjoyed the giftedness and even the OCD that has come with it. I couldn’t have gotten my Ph.D. without it. And yet, my sensitivities and “weird” behaviors have definitely affected various aspects of my life. One of the best things to have happened to me was for me to realize I was autistic and to get officially diagnosed. It cleared up why I was argumentative (have ODD), why I couldn’t understand why everyone else wasn’t as rational or couldn’t see all the complex patterns I could see. It cleared up why I have all my sensitivities, why I think the way I do, why I avoid being in the middle of large groups of people, why I have blackout and movement seizures, why I have a delay in my response to people, and why I can get confused if people don’t give me the processing time I need.
 
The benefit of knowing I am autistic goes beyond that. Now I’m no longer just that weird person who doesn’t like to socialize who inexplicably alternates between being wonderfully kind and friendly to appearing to be rude (from failing to notice things going on or being confused about a given situation). Those behaviors are now able to be explained. Which doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have someone say, “Hey, so and so said hi to you.” I do. It helps. Nor does it mean I shouldn’t have certain behaviors pointed out to me, because when they are, I become more conscious of them and the fact that they may make non-autistic people uncomfortable, so I should try to change that behavior. At the same time, there’s always a degree to which we cannot help our behaviors. In a room full of autistic people like me, the non-autistics would stand out and it would be their behavior which would seem out of place. And if we insisted they fit in, they would seem socially awkward and would have an extremely difficult time fitting in.
 
The long and short of it is that autism is a real thing with real behavioral and cognitive differences in those of us who have it. It’s important people know Daniel is autistic. That way people can understand that if he’s in a situation with a lot of people where he’s being completely overwhelmed that he’s not an out-of-control brat who just need some strong discipline to straighten him up, but actually cannot integrate what is going on, positive feedback is dominating, and he’s so completely overwhelmed he shuts down until he resets (in a closed system like the brain, positive feedback doesn’t run away forever, but rather creates cycles). I want people to understand that. I want people to adjust their expectation and to make room for “odd” behaviors so they can reap the benefits of our existence.

One Gene to Regulate Them All (or, at least many of them)

I have recently written about the complexities of the underlying genetics of autism, including issues of gene regulation. That particular article focused on RNA regulation through methylation. Now there is more evidence for the importance of RNA regulation in Nature. The CPEB-4 protein is involved in the addition of the poly-A tail to mRNAs, and there is a version that specifically regulates this in genes connected to autism.

Each mRNA–which allows the genes for proteins to be turned into those proteins–has a tail of adenosines (one of the nucleotides) added to it after it is transcribed from the DNA. This is important because when the mRNA is translated into a protein, a nucleotide is removed from the end of the RNA. The longer the tail, the more proteins can be made. If only short tails can be produced, there will not be enough proteins produced. CPEB-4 seems to be involved in regulating the length of the poly-A tail.

As already mentioned, things in the cell are complex. In learning more about this gene, I have learned that the protein, cytoplasmic polyadenylation element binding protein, is found in the dendrites and cell body of neurons, but that “treatment of neurons with ionotropic glutamate receptor agonists causes CPEB4 to accumulate in the nucleus. ” Here we again see a gene/protein related to autism connected to glutamate. Stress conditions in the brain–low oxygen or glucose, for example–cause CPEB4 to be sent from the cytoplasm to the nucleus, where they cannot do their job of regulating poly-A in the cytoplasm.

As noted, the CPEB4 gene seems to be central, but that doesn’t mean we should necessarily see mutations in it connected to autism. There could be mutations in the gene(s) for the ionotropic glutamate receptor, or in the gene(s) for glutamate production, or in some other regulator of CPEB4. So while you are bound to find popular articles out there crowing about the fact that there is a “central gene” connected to autism, don’t be mistaken: it’s still a complex situation.

RNA Methylation

People rarely understand just how complex molecular biology really is. People are out there looking for the “autism gene” or “genes,” but have only found a low percentage of people who can be connected to a specific genetic change in a particular protein-producing gene. For many people, that means that environment is likely to be the main cause. However, there are many other factors in molecular biology that will have an effect on cellular outcomes that won’t be connected to a mutation in a protein-producing gene.

There are a variety of other things active inside a cell that affect protein expression and function. DNA can be methylated such that certain genes are turned off. RNA can be methylated as well, which affects translation of mRNA into proteins. The benefits of methylating RNA over DNA is that the cell is able to respond to its environment much more quickly. As the linked article notes, this allows for proteins to be turned on at synapses very far from the neuron’s nucleus. Both forms of methylation are of course a result of a protein or protein complex, meaning there is a gene or set of genes involved in them as well. So it still ends up being genetic–the only thing is that we won’t be looking for direct proteins, but rather proteins involved in these regulatory processes.

Insofar as the numbers of certain proteins in synapses is connected to certain varieties of autism, one should definitely look at regulatory elements in the production of those proteins, the transport of those proteins, the folding of those proteins, and the insertion of those proteins into the membrane when relevant. Those will all involve completely different protein complexes and processes, meaning there are a large number of potential pathways to the same basic outcome.

I think it’s important to learn how the various forms of neurodiversity come about simply because I support any and all basic research. I do think, though, that we need to change people’s attitudes about autism in general as we make these discoveries. It may be–and it’s likely to be–the case that those with such severe autism that they are rendered severely disabled (autism 3) are genetically quite different from the rest (autism 1 and 2), and that there might be a very wide variety of things we’re placing under the “autism” umbrella.

At the same time, it’s clear that my autism 2 son inherited his autism from me, though I’m only autism 1. This suggests either an environmental factor also being in play, or combinations of genes , or both affecting degree. There may be gene combinations which result in autism, so that if for example, you have gene X and gene Y, and mutation x’ and mutation y’, then XY would be neurotypical, X’Y would be neurotypical, XY’ would be neurotypical, and X’Y’ would be autistic, for example. Or there could be certain benefits to X’Y or XY’ for those individuals, yet when they get together and make an X’Y’ autistic child. Or X’Y’ is more sensitive to environmental factors than are the other three combinations, such that in the right environment, even X’Y’ won’t result in autism.

As I said, these things are very complex. Anyone who tells you they have a simple answer to the cause of autism is selling snake oil.

Autistic Masking

A recent trend I have seen on Twitter among autistics there involved opposition to “autistic masking.” Not all autistics can mask, but many if not most can. And that creates a number of problems for us.

I’m honestly a little torn on this issue, because on the one hand, I realize that literally everyone “masks”–you are a spouse, a parent, a friend, a child, an employee or employer, and there may be remarkably little overlap among those personas you present–and on the other hand, autistics both have to mask a lot more (like stimming), and masking is much more exhausting for us than it is for neurotypicals.

Over time, though, a lot of masking just becomes second nature. Sometimes you mask without even realizing it. For example, recently Daniel started engaging in palilalia. It was only recently that I realized palilalia was something I also did–only, I did it silently, in my head. I don’t see any particular benefit to my “unmasking” my palilalia. I’m still doing it–silently, in my head–and all it would do would be to cause unnecessary stress on others for me to do it out loud.

There are a lot of things people keep to themselves. People self-censor all the time. It’s called being polite. It’s called having good manners. You learn good manners. It’s not something anyone is born with. It’s a form of masking, and it’s a form of masking that makes you a better person over time.

However, the last century has seen a rise in what I would call the “cult of authenticity.” Everyone seems to think–or at least say they think–that people ought to be more “authentic,” that they need to be their “authentic selves.” I say that’s nonsense. I don’t want people to be their authentic selves. I want them to be better, nicer, kinder, more generous than their authentic selves–even if their authentic selves are good, nice, kind, and generous. The cult of authenticity has ruined art, poetry, relationships, and general civility. Rather than expecting everyone to rise up to greater heights, we want everyone to wallow in the shallows of their “authentic” selves.

At the same time, I can understand why many autistics are truly tired of masking. Masking is, for us, a great effort and, even when well-performed, prone to breaking down. Masking for neurotypicals is easy and relatively effortless. Masks can change in less than a moment. This is hardly the case for autistics. We have to always think about what it is that the person in front of us wants to see from us. And heaven help us if the situation changes and the mask has to change. Worse, we have to mask things that others don’t have to mask. Neurotypicals are sincerely interested in other people and stories about others people, while very often we autistics aren’t. But we know it’s important to others to talk about those thing, so we feign interest. Also, if we are allowing a lot of back-and-forth in conversation, you may rest assured that it’s only because we are artificially cutting ourselves off despite having so much more to say. This, too, is a form of masking.

I suppose the real problem with masking is that while presumably neurotypicals do get times when they can be their “authentic selves” around certain people, we too often feel like we can never be ourselves–even around friends and family. When can I stim without feeling self-conscious about it? (Of course, I also rarely stim when I’m fully comfortable, so I suppose wanting both is contradictory in nature, at least for me.) When can I just talk and talk and talk about what interests me? I pretty much never get that opportunity, and I find myself less and less able to have conversations about my interests that go on for as long as I want them to go on (ah, the beauty of grad school in allowing such conversations!).

I often put up with people touching my wrists (which makes me want to crawl out of my skin), and I have to wear suits and long-sleeve shirts (remember my wrists?) in certain situations. I’ve had to get over being interrupted when I work so that I’m not biting people’s heads off. Even then, I really haven’t “gotten over” the intense irritation I get at being interrupted when I’m working on something, especially my writing. Rather, I mask it, taking a moment to calmly move out of the zone and into a space where I can converse. But let me ask you: should I have just kept biting people’s heads off, or should I have masked that reaction? I think we should probably all agree on the answer to that.

Living in the world means masking. This is true for all people. However, it’s harder for us autistics. And we’re rarely if ever given the opportunity to truly be ourselves. Which only makes it harder. Which is no doubt why there is this movement against masking. We have been pressured into always-masking (and always doing so poorly), and many have gotten sick and tired of it. The answer, for them, is to demand from everyone that we be allowed to never mask anymore. I think there are rhetorical benefits to that approach insofar as it draws attention to what we have to do to get along (and even then, not enough)–especially if it can draw attention to the fact that masking, because it’s so hard for us, actually harms us not only through mental exhaustion, but from people reacting so poorly to when the mask starts to crack. We need people to realize what we’re doing and how it can harm us. But, truth be told, we’ll never be able to stop masking. It’s simply part of being human.

Autism and the Emergence of Art

Around 30,000 years ago, extremely detailed, realistic art emerged in cave paintings. Believe it or not, there are many scholars out there who believe this occurred because the artists were autistic.

Lead author of the paper, Professor Penny Spikins from the Department of Archaelogy at the University of York, said: “Detail focus is what determines whether you can draw realistically; you need it in order to be a talented realistic artist. This trait is found very commonly in people with autism and rarely occurs in people without it.”

Which itself raises some interesting issues regarding the history of art and the proliferation of realism during periods such as the Renaissance.
A related article also suggests that human societies really took off only after they learned to tolerate the presence of people who thought and behaved differently. Oddly, we seem to be losing that trait even as we are gaining acceptance of people who merely look differently.
Either way, it’s obvious that autism has been around for a very long time indeed. The idea that autism may be adaptive for humans at the level of group selection is something I myself have suggested. It would appear that autistics are important for the development of artistic styles and a concentration on extreme realism. Of course, that means that during artistic periods dominated by iconoclasm, such as we saw in Modernism and Postmodernism, select against autistic artists. It is likely, though, that we will again have our day.

Who is up for another autistic-lead renaissance?