Older Fathers and Autism

We have known for a while that there was a correlation between having an older father and having an increased likelihood of having autism. It was once thought that this was because of an increase in de novo mutations in sperm, but recent research says that that can only account for 20% or so of autism cases.

If it’s not new mutations, what’s the explanation?

The authors of the linked piece suggest that perhaps it’s because men with autistic traits marry later in life. In my case, that was certainly true. I started dating very late in life, and I only met my wife when I was 33. My daughter was born when I was 35. My autistic son, Daniel, was born when I was 38. And Dylan was born when I was 40. Dylan does not have autism, but he did have a language delay and he has a degree of OCD, and it seems he has perfect pitch (a trait found in many autistics and their near-relatives). I of course am on the Asperger’s end of the spectrum.

Getting into the kinds of relationships that result in children is difficult at best for us on the spectrum. Some, like Temple Grandin, choose celibacy because these relationships are so complex and difficult. Many solve the problem by marrying someone else on the spectrum. And I’m willing to bet those are also delayed relative to when most people marry and have children.

It will be interesting to see a study on this, to see if it holds up. But given the nature of people on the spectrum, and given the fact that autism is genetic and thus completely heritable, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if the explanation were simply that autistic people tend to marry and have children later in life.

Welcome to the World Autism Made

One of the areas in which autistic people seem to excel is computers. A large percentage (perhaps most) of computer programmers are on the spectrum. Silicon Valley is covered in autistic people. Although I never learned to program, I’ve been online since before the World Wide Web. I started on GopherSpace. Most of my interactions with others have been online, and I even used the internet to meet my wife–using eHarmony.

Now, it may seem odd that there is a group of people who don’t do well in regular society but who seem well-adapted to computers. I mean, it’s not like computers are in nature, creating evolutionary pressures. And they haven’t been around long enough to create any selective advantages.

However, one thing we forget about species is that they are not only adapted to their environment, but they adapt the environment to themselves. In Africa, there are two species of elephants–the forest elephant and the (more familiar) savanna elephant. The latter have a tendency to push over trees. Might there be savannas where the savanna elephants are because those elephants create savannas?

Let me list a few people who we either know or suspect had autism, and their specialty.

Isaac Newton — founder of modern physics, inventor of calculus
Charles Babbage — computer
Alexander Graham Bell — inventor of the telephone
Thomas Edison — inventor
Nikola Tesla — inventor (esp. of alternating current–AC)
Norbert Wiener — information theory
Alan Turing — mathematician, computer scientist
Bill Gates — software

One could make the argument that autistic people created the very computer environment autistic people are most comfortable in.

In fact, there is pretty good evidence that most of the science, technology, and arts you enjoy are the products of autistic minds.

Seizures and Autism

I’m currently reading the book Educating Children with Autism, which is a government report–and reads like one. Meaning, it’s one of the driest, most boring things I’ve ever read. It’s also not exactly chock-full of new information. I’ve run across most of what it has to say in various other places (and said better in those places). But that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few tidbits there.

One tidbit is the fact that “staring spells” are in fact small seizures (30). If you have autism or know of someone with autism, you know they can sometimes fall into “staring spells,” or “space out.”

Actually, that tidbit can also be found in Temple Grandin’s Thinking in Pictures (6).

A seizure is simply caused by an abnormal electrical discharge in the brain. Getting caught in a positive feedback loop, for example. These kinds of seizures are called “absence seizures” because there are only a few seconds of consciousness lost, with no other symptoms. Externally, it appears that the person is just staring blankly.

I have these seizures all the time. I’ve had them for as long as I can remember. I just didn’t know they were seizures until I read about them in the two books above and looked up what kinds of seizures they were. They’re not really a big deal, and often you don’t even know you have had one.

Of course, if you have one in front of a person, it’s bound to be noticed. I’ve been asked a few times whether or not I was okay. If I’m busy doing something and I have one, I’ve been asked if I’m thinking about something (I usually am, so I usually answer in the affirmative). Once, when I had one at a Starbucks I actually had someone rather aggressively ask me what I was staring at, and even after I told him I wasn’t staring at him at all, but was rather thinking about something (I now know better), he told me to stop it. I guess the good thing now is that I if something like that should happen again, I can tell the person I’m prone to absence seizures, and he can feel like the ass he is.

I also have a “twitch” that began as a “head turning” but now mostly manifests itself in a head-shaking. It happens mostly when I’m most relaxed. If I’m focused, I don’t have them. It turns out that those are another kind of seizure, a partial seizure known as a simple motor seizure.

Given that these minor seizures are a feature of autism, I now have an explanation for these experiences. Who would have guessed they were seizures?

Joyce Carol Oates Insults Autistics on Twitter

Around the same time Nancy MacLean was making her anti-autistic comments, Joyce Carol Oates tweeted quite the ignorant insult about autistics:

So we are apparently identical to psychopaths and don’t “even seem aware of others.” I don’t even know where to begin with such a comment. First, there is no overlap between psychopaths and autistics. None. If anything, we are anti-psychopaths. A psychopaths is so socially aware and even charming, that he or she could get you to vote for them (any very many have). But you won’t find a great many of us autistics in politics.

Also, I’ve never known a single autistic person–even among the many severely autistic people I’ve known over the years–who weren’t aware of others. We may have a tendency to prefer objects–or even ideas–over people, but we’re not unaware of others. Of course, Nancy MacLean and Joyce Carol Oates seem intent on making it clear why we may not particularly care for people, given the way we’re so often treated. Particularly, it seems, by people like them.

I’m wondering how many more people like them are going to make ignorant, disparaging comments about autism before people start getting outraged by it. I’m also wondering if and when any of them are going to show the empathy, morality, and conscience to apologize to the autistic community for their discriminatory comments. I find it very disturbing that we cannot seem to get a single apology from anyone for comments that nobody would tolerate if they were made about practically any other group.

Nancy MacLean Update

The student newspaper at Duke University, The Chronicle, has taken up the issue of Duke historian Nancy MacLean’s anti-autism comments I first raised. To date they have run three articles on it:

Professor Nancy MacLean claims founders of libertarianism seem to be on the ‘autism spectrum

Shame on Nancy MacLean

Duke Hypocrisy

The first and last do have a political bent to them, but the middle one is by the editorial board of The Chronicle.

None of the posts mention this blog which, to the best of my knowledge, originated the story. Certainly the first mainstream media outlet to discuss her comments, Reason, cites my blog. While the big blowup occurred among conservative and libertarian outlets, a leftist response at Merion West did pop up several days later. While they seem more interested in pointing out conservative hypocrisy on the issue, they do condemn MacLean’s statement.

While I previously discussed the degree to which she was incorrect about autistics having low empathy, I haven’t discussed at length her claim that we do not feel solidarity.

I am sure that what MacLean means by “solidarity” is something along the lines of fellow-feeling for some sort of group. If that’s what she means, then she’s right: we probably don’t feel that very strongly. As a result, we have a tendency not to be racists, sexists, homophobes, nationalists, etc. (Which doesn’t mean an autistic person raised in a racist environment won’t turn out racist–but I would argue they would be less likely to do so and be more prone to becoming less racist over time precisely because we have a more egalitarian outlook on the world and thus feel less solidarity.)

On the other hand, we autistics also tend to be very loyal. We are loyal to our spouses, to our friends, and to the places where we work. Personally, I would rather be loyal than to feel the kind of solidarity that underlies racism, sexism, classism, ableism, and other kinds of groupthink. If Nancy MacLean wishes to condemn that as a weakness, that says more about her character than it does about those she criticizes and denigrates.

And, no, she still hasn’t make a public apology for what she said.


Update: The Wall Street Journal has a piece on Nancy MacLean’s anti-autism comments.

Also, Pacific Standard has a piece on it that cites me. She apparently made an apology to the author of the piece in a private email to him.

Shank Genes and Various Autisms

MIT reports they have discovered the role of a gene linked to autism. The Shank gene is involved in the maturation of synapses, and mutations in one of the Shank genes (there are three in humans) accounts for 0.5% of all known cases of autism–the largest known genetic cause. In their research, they have also found that Shank proteins are involved with another protein whose gene has also been linked to autism.

There are no doubt a large number of ways the brain can wire itself, from synapses not forming correctly to more synapses than usual (which can interfere with each other and thus result in the synapses not forming correctly), more or fewer dendritic spines, etc.

I am willing to bet that we will find a variety of autisms caused by certain families of relations. The autism caused by mutations that affect the Shank-Wnt interactions are likely to be quite different from those caused by imbalances in neurotransmitters that likely cause intense world autism. In each case, a variety of mutations can lead us down the same pathways. In the Shank-Wnt interactions, we can have mutations in any of the Shank genes or in the Wnt gene and get the same outcome. In intense world autism, mutations that cause overproduction of glutamate, the underproduction of glutamine, affect the production of serotonin, or affect the binding of vitamin D so the body can use serotonin, or affect the production or absorption of vitamin D can all create the same or similar conditions. Various causes can result in the same effect.

On this blog I mostly focus on what appear to be the causes of my and my son’s autism, but of course any of the causes of any of the autisms are worth looking into and understanding. But of course I say that as an information junky–which is practically the same thing as saying, as someone with autism.

The Hungry Caterpillar at DCT

The Dallas Children’s Theater sensory shows are a regular outing for the Camplin family. Just yesterday, we attended The Hungry Caterpillar, which was really four different vignettes of Eric Carle’s works, including The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse, Mr. Seahorse, The Very Lonely Firefly, and The Hungry Caterpillar, respectively. The y all included giant puppets that required people dressed in white to control them. It was very beautiful and quite delightful overall.

In the first one, there was a series of blank canvasses brought out for the painter to paint on. He would turn the canvas around, pretend to paint, then turn the canvas around to reveal different paintings of different animals–such as the blue horse. After several of these were done, Daniel whispered that he was certain the artist was “bringing down a sheet” to create the painting so fast. Which of course was pretty much what was happening, as each of the canvases could have the top flipped down to the bottom so the blank canvas suddenly had an image on it. Daniel, being hyper-logical, quickly understood there was no way he could have painted the paintings so fast.

Between the first and the second vignette, all sorts of props were brought out. Daniel whispered to me that they were changing scenes because they were bringing new things out on stage.

Daniel loves fish, and he would try to guess what kinds of fish were being brought out before they were identified by the narrator. At the end of the vignette, he whispered to me that it wasn’t going to be a single story, but several short ones–which, of course, it was.

Mostly Daniel commented on technical aspects of the play, which is something he had started to do last time. It’s equally notable that today he had wanted to put on a puppet play (with the firefly finger puppets he and Dylan got at the theater afterwards). Daniel has liked “putting on plays” for us, and those plays are becoming more and more narrative in structure. The last play he put on was a fairly accurate–and narratively structured–1st Thanksgiving play, from the trip across the ocean to the settlement at Plymouth Rock and the Thanksgiving feast with the Native Americans. Overall, not bad for an 8 year old. I would like to think that my being a playwright, poet, and fiction writer has something to do with his interest, but I suspect it’s really DCT.

Coincidentally, tomorrow I will be doing an interview with DCT about our experiences with the sensory program. It’s actually my second interview. I’m sure I’ll share whatever comes of it soon.

Affective and Cognitive Empathy in Autistics

The issues of empathy and autism are actually quite complex. There is research that suggests that autistics have affective empathy, but are lacking in cognitive empathy. Few realize that there are in fact two different kinds of empathy. In particular, it is noted that, “ASD had difficulties with tasks requiring cognitive perspective taking, but reported emotional experiences and victim empathy that were in line with comparison boys.” In comparison, psychopaths are deficient in affective empathy, but not social.

In other words, autistics seem to be deficient in social empathy because they are deficient in theory of mind. Given that I have argued that there are serious problems with the theory that autistics have deficient theory of mind, this would also suggest that there is a serious problem with the argument that we are lacking in cognitive empathy.

Why would the researchers find that ASD have difficulties with cognitive perspective taking? Perhaps because they themselves have difficulties with cognitive perspective taking when it comes to those with ASD. They no doubt had us try to “mind read” neurotypicals, only to find we had difficulty. Did they also have us try to “mind read” fellow autistics? I know that I do a better job of understanding the feelings, thoughts, and actions of fellow autistics than I do of neurotypicals.

If I were to judge neurotypicals by autistic standards, I would have to conclude that they don’t have cognitive empathy. They seem to have emotional/affective abilities, but not the ability to take our perspective. If they were able to do that, they wouldn’t have been making the mistake of accusing us of not having empathy or theory of mind.

When most people accuse us of not having empathy, they aren’t usually making these distinctions, though. Watching us, it may sometimes seem we don’t have empathy. Rather than having an obvious emotional response to a situation, we are often standing there, calmly taking in the situation, then calmly coming in to solve the problem. People too often interpret this lack of an “emotional” response–which all too often means, “You’re not panicking and making things worse, like I am”–as lack of empathy. We in turn look at the neurotypicals’ emotional responses as irrational, ineffective, and even making the situation worse.

Of course, in turn, there are a number of situations that greatly upset us that neurotypicals don’t remotely understand. Yet our emotional responses to our things are considered by neurotypicals to be “ridiculous” and a sign of our pathology. We get upset at different things, and are calm in the face of different things; that’s all. It’s not a sign of pathology for either of us that those differences exist.

There Is No “Autism Defense” for Crime

I hate to have to write about the school shooting in Florida, but when one of the attorneys for Nikolas Cruz says that “the defense team would be exploring mental health issues and “the possibility of autism.” ” then I have to say something. Especially in light of the comments made by Nancy MacLean.

If Cruz’s attorneys make the “autism defense,” there is nothing good that can come of that. Autism is not a defense for such an action, because autistic people are not any more prone to perpetuating this kind of violence than are neurotypicals. The problem is that because people believe that we do not have empathy (a notion Nancy MacLean perpetuated with her comments), it will be easy to get people to believe that we will therefore be more prone to doing things like shooting up schools. I would actually suggest that because we have a very strong moral core, we may in fact be less included to do so. In fact, if you consider how ill-treated we are by practically everyone and how confusing most people’s actions are, I would argue that we probably engage in far, far less violent behavior relative to neurotypicals who have been similarly treated their entire lives.

The fact of the matter is that autistic people can control their conscious actions just as much as any typical person. True, there are those who have meltdowns, particularly young autistics, but they are triggered, sudden, and suddenly over. They do not involve planning. In other words, while it may be possible that an autistic person could commit such an atrocity, they did not commit such an atrocity because they are autistic. We are responsible for these kinds of conscious actions.

None of this precludes other issues with Cruz. He may have other mental illnesses. But quite frankly, unless he was hallucinating, he would still be completely responsible for his actions with the overwhelming majority of mental illnesses. Even psychopaths who literally have no moral core to guide their actions are nevertheless responsible for those actions.  No one would dream of using psychopathy as a defense, and rightly so.

There are all sorts of issues that need to be raised with school shootings, not the least of which is why schools are not dealing with mental health issues in the schools, other than putting the “worst” ones in the behavior units. Also, why is it that people are being made to feel the need to violently lash out, with the schools as their targets? What is going on in our education system that is making people feel so powerless that they feel the need to wield the ultimate kind of power: deadly force? What is happening in our schools to make our children feel this way?

We need to raise a voice of protest against the use of the “autism defense.” Yes, we need to insist that, if an autistic person commits a crime, neither they nor their attorneys can use autism as an excuse. If we want people to accept the fact that we are merely neurologically different, but that different in no way means “worse,” then we have to stand up against every slur, every instant of prejudiced language, every attempt to argue that it’s an excuse for truly criminal behavior. Yes, there are a variety of behaviors we on the spectrum cannot help, but those involve saying the wrong things or stimming, not criminal plots.

High-Level Discrimination and Prejudice

On Feb. 10, I posted a piece criticizing Nancy MacLean, Duke University history professor and author of the National Book Award-nominated Democracy in Chains for her anti-autistic statements. To say that my post has taken off–particularly, but not exclusively, in conservative and libertarian outlets–would be an understatement. There are many who are using this for purely political purposes, but as far as I’m concerned, if we can get more people aware of the issues we on the autism spectrum face, it’s all to the good.

For me, Nancy MacLean’s comments are hardly unique to her; if anything, they are quite typical of altogether too many people. In my experience, most especially among academics like her, who can tolerate anything other than different ways of thinking. And autism is certainly a different way of thinking. While one would expect universities to be a place where different ways of thinking would be encouraged, the fact is that all too often autistics in particular are punished by the dominant culture in our universities.

I’ve experienced the explicit discrimination against autism in our universities first-hand. I made the mistake of disclosing to the administrators at the University of North Texas at Dallas, which led to an effort by the administration to not renew my Lecturer contract. I next made the mistake of disclosing to my students at Southern Methodist University, leading to students actually complaining that I was autistic and “acted weird,” a complaint I had never had prior to disclosing my autism to them, with the result that I was not brought back in the spring as an adjunct.

There is a strong prejudice against autistic people. We are treated as damaged–including by so-called supporters who promulgate anti-vaccination nonsense because of nonexistent connections between vaccines and autism–rather than as people who have different ways of thinking. Yes, there are extreme versions of autism that result in a number of serious physical and communication problems, but while these are in many ways the most visible, the “milder” versions such as my son and me are in fact the more common by a long shot. We are people who want to work, but who face extremely high unemployment rates (I’ve seen numbers from 20% to 80%) precisely because of the kinds of prejudices promulgated by even the most educated among us (perhaps by them most of all). Worse, despite these high unemployment rates, primarily due to explicit discrimination against autism, we all too often cannot even get disability.

I hope this issue continues to have legs. I do not want autism to continue to be the last acceptable form of discrimination. But as long as people like Nancy MacLean continue to spread negative stereotypes of autism, it will continue to be acceptable.