When I Tell You “My Son Has Autism”

If my son is behaving in a way that you don’t like or which you think is dangerous for himself or others, and I say to you, “My son is autistic,” that does not mean:

  1. That I am excusing or justifying or even defending his behavior.
  2. That you should just keep doing what you’re doing like I said nothing.
  3. That you know more about what to do in that situation than I do, even if you’re an expert (you may be an expert in whatever activity we’re doing, but you’re not an expect in doing it with an autistic child).

Rather, what it means is:

  1. You should shut up and listen, because
  2. You are almost certainly doing something that is completely ineffective, or
  3. You are doing something that will make things worse, which could mean
  4. You are creating an even more dangerous situation.

When a parent of an autistic child is telling you that their child is autistic, it’s usually because there is a situation occurring in which what is being said and done will make things worse, not better. While threats (of not doing the activity, for example) may work with neurotypical children, they don’t work with autistic children. They either won’t care or, worse, they will care a great deal and be pushed toward having a meltdown over it.

If you are actually concerned about safety, and a parent tells you that their child is autistic, it’s time for you to shut up and listen, because it’s clear to the parent that whatever you’re doing or saying is making things more dangerous. You don’t dismiss us, and you certainly don’t double down.

We parents of autistic children know what works. It’s your job to seriously shut up and listen. I cannot emphasize this enough: S.T.F.U. and LISTEN!

Now, once you are listening, once you are paying attention, you will be told how to solve the problem. More likely, the parent will have a better solution once you explain to the parent what you need from their child. And if you want to actually have a positive interaction with an autistic child, don’t threaten, don’t raise your voice–literally don’t do anything you think would work, because you’re wrong.

Rather, calmly address the child and use reason to explain to them why they shouldn’t do what they’re doing. They will listen. And they will give you the behavior you want. Because while the autistic child may often appear like they’re not behaving rationally, the fact is that they respond to reason better than a neurotypical child does.

So, please, the next time someone tells you, “My child is autistic,” just shut up and listen. The person isn’t looking to make excuses. They’re trying to help you understand. And they’re trying to help you solve the problems occurring with their child.

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Autism and the 2-Year-Old Brain

I am certain that one of the ideas I have about autistics will likely annoy some people because they are bound to misunderstand it. That idea is that autistics essentially have the brains of two-year-olds. While the feedback to that linked post was all positive, I still don’t want people to misunderstand what I mean when I talk about this topic, because I know people will mistakenly think I’m just saying autistics are “childlike” or some such nonsense, or that we’re “retarded” (too bad that word hasn’t been quite retired). However, nothing could be farther from the truth.

At the same time, it occurred to me that we could look at some traits of 2-year-olds and see if my thesis is correct.

First, I want to quote a comment made on one of my past posts:

If autistic people missed part of a brain update around age 2, it would make a lot of sense to have a really good long-term memory but not so good short-term memory. Isn’t one of the main functions of a 2-year-old’s memory to learn as much new information for use for the rest of his life? At that stage in life, I would imagine long term memory would be a much better investment than short-term memory.

I think this is probably true. It would, I think, explain this aspect of the way our memories work. It would also explain why many are more visual (at the cusp of learning language, the child would actually be more visually-oriented) and also why many are good at seeing patterns (finding the patterns of the world is vital to living in it), as these traits continue to get developed through the delay. And we also know that delays in development can result in improvements in function.

So, that having been said, I want to look at the traits of 2-year-olds.

  • Temper tantrums are common in this age group.
  • They may play with other children for a short time, but aren’t yet capable of true sharing.
  • They find it hard to wait or make choices.
  • They can’t understand reason or control their impulses.
  • They love to copy adults, in both appearance and activity.
  • They may be bossy.
  • Two year olds have difficulty distinguishing reality from fantasy.
  • By three, most children can follow complex instructions.

We could rephrase these such that they sound like you’re describing an autistic person. While we know there’s a huge difference between tantrums and meltdowns, that difference may not be quite so clear-cut among 2-year-olds. Older autistic children typically only play with other children for a short time and have a hard time sharing. I know I have a hard time waiting, and I have a hard time making choices (as my wife can attest when we’re trying to pick a restaurant).

An interesting one is the one about understanding reason and controlling their impulses. The latter is certainly true to a certain degree. That’s our weak executive function–weak also in 2-year-olds. But if anything, we’re hyper-rational. If there’s anything we understand, it’s reason. I think, though, that our cognitive delay may in fact be among the reasons for our strong rationality. It’s more developed, because developed more slowly. Not to mention that it’s a replacement for our weak executive function.

Eulalia is essentially copying adults (or films or TV shows). We tend to be bossy. My son has a hard time distinguishing between the cartoons he watches and reality–he’s always asking me for clarification of what can and cannot happen in the real world compared to the cartoons he watches. And it’s well-established that we all have a hard time following complex instructions, but rather need things broken down.

The fact that many of these traits continue as children become older, and often into adulthood, suggests the mature-yet-2-year-old brain hypothesis–a form of neoteny–may be worth further investigation.

NOTCH2NL–The Human Gene?

There is a gene–NOTCH2NL–that is found only in humans (and Denisovans and Neanderthals, once upon a time). It’s actually part of an ancient family of genes, but this particular version is only found in humans–and, more, we have multiple copies of it.

What this gene does is slow down the development of stem cells into neurons. Why does this matter? This delay actually causes more stem cells to turn into neurons, meaning without NOTCH2NL, our brains wouldn’t have anywhere near as many neurons and thus wouldn’t be anywhere near as big.

This gene is found on chromosome 1, in the location 1q21.1. As the original article in Cell notes, additional copies of this region have been found in people with autism. In other words, it’s possible that at least some autistics have even more copies of NOTCH2NL, resulting in even more neurogenesis. More neurons could push the brain toward greater positive feedback, which seems to be a main feature of autism regardless of various potential causes.

What this implies is that the very process that made us humans–the proliferation of NOTCH2NL (after it evolved)–could be behind the emergence of autism. In other words, some autistics may be more human than human.