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.

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Autistic Bonding

Friday, when a family friend was over, Daniel asked our friend to watch Nausicaa with him. So we arranged for Daniel to visit our friend’s house Saturday so they could watch the movie together. Anna tried to make it very clear to our friend just how important watching this movies was for Daniel, because for Daniel the two of them watching the movie together was a bonding moment (or bonding 2 hours, more or less). Daniel was showing he cared by sharing his favorite movie with our family friend.

This is also something I do. For me, sharing something I like is a primary way I bond. If you want to bond with me, I recommend reading Oedipus and Antigone by Sophocles, Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, The Unbearable Lightness of Being and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera, Time, Conflict, and Human Values by J.T. Fraser, and The Culture of Hope by Frederick Turner. Each of these have been central to my thinking and aesthetic. I may not agree with everything each author says or believes, but that’s not the point. My love of tragedy, the realization that one could use fiction to investigate ideas, the depth and breadth of styles that could go into fiction, and the ideas that helped form my world view and aesthetic (respectively, by author) are important to me. And if I’m important to you, I think they should be important to you. Or you should have at least read them all.

Of course, the same could be said of my favorite films, including Casablanca and Rear Window, or my favorite T.V. shows. Watching a T.V. show together, having a shared attention, is important to me–just as it is for Daniel.

I suppose this is part of our autistic object-orientedness. I can also bond over orchids, though honestly, I’ve probably forgotten half of what I used to know about them. But you never know–get me talking (as Daniel has about sharks), and I might surprise us both with what I remember. More likely, I’ll talk to you about self-organizing network processes and emergent order. Most people bond over people and relationships; we bond over objects and ideas. While T.V. shows and movies may seem common ground, you may find that our idea of bonding over a favorite movie is a bit more intense than what you’re used to. But understand that that intensity comes from wanting to connect with you through our common interest. That’s just how we do it.

Food

I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone with an autistic child whose child wasn’t picky when it comes to food. In that sense, we’re somewhat lucky in that Daniel isn’t all that picky. In fact, our 11 -year-old daughter is the pickiest one. It’s for her that we have to often make “other meals” than the main one.

That being said, there are two people in this household who are gluten-free, and it’s the two who have been diagnosed ASD–Daniel and me. We are gluten-free because anything with wheat in it causes us to get severe stomach aches, and has more than once caused Daniel to throw up (usually, it’s a combination of birthday cake and driving home from the birthday party). Daniel won’t even ask for cake anyplace else any more.

There’s also some Type-2 diabetes in the house, so there’s an increasing avoidance of anything with carbs.

But we can’t just get rid of carbs, because our daughter won’t eat anything except bread, tortillas, spaghetti, butter, cheese, milk, cereal, bacon, fried eggs, or pepperoni pizza (how is the taste of everything else too strong, but not pepperonis, which she’ll eat plain?). If we got rid of carbs, she’d starve.

To round things out, Dylan will at least eat almost anything.

Most of my pickiness comes out of certain textures being “wrong.” And Daniel seems to go back and forth on some things, like fried eggs. I made him over-easy eggs, but he wouldn’t eat the yolks. So I started making him fried egg whites. Then he said he didn’t want, “baby eggs,” meaning he wanted yolks. He ate over-easy eggs with yolks for a few weeks, but this past weekend he ate only the whites again. My guess is he’s torn between the slimy yolk texture and the desire to not be eating “baby eggs.”

I also have to make two batches of chili, one with all the vegetables, one with just meat and beans. Melina won’t eat any chili, of course, but the boys will. And the boys will eat things that are hot and spicy, but complain if there are too many things like onions, chunks of peppers, or spinach/chard. Of course, part of this is simply that children simply refuse to eat their vegetables.

Our pickiest eater, though, is one who hasn’t been diagnosed with autism. She does have the pickiness and the clothes sensitivities (and fashion sense) that typically comes with autism, though. At least she doesn’t have the wheat allergy, though, or I don’t know what that girl would eat. As it is, with pickiness, gluten-free, and diabetes (and I have slightly low blood sugar, so I have to have carbs), I’m practically a short order cook when it comes to dinner. Doesn’t everyone make 3-4 different meals at dinner time?

Progress in Language Skills

Recently Daniel has been showing the degree to which he has been making progress in his language skills. Two areas in which he has shown improvement have been the initiation of conversations and the use of figurative language–two areas typically difficult for those on the spectrum.

Anna’s mother recently had a surgery, and we had talked about it a little bit around the house. When Anna’s mother came up for Thanksgiving, as soon as she sat down upon arrival, Daniel went up to her and asked her about her surgery, and then told her he was happy she was doing better. This was the first time Daniel had ever initiated a conversation. It wasn’t the first time he started talking to someone–but simply starting to talk to someone isn’t the same as properly initiating a conversation. Daniel will ask you questions about sharks or Star Wars or planets, but he’s not going to ask you about how your day went or, well, pretty much anything at all about you. So him asking his grandmother how her surgery went–and doing it on his own–was major.

The other one happened yesterday. I was having the kids clean up their rooms and the toys scattered throughout the house, and finally Daniel decided he was finished. He announced that if he continued cleaning, in 5 minutes he would blow up. I told him I wanted to see that, so keep cleaning for 6 minutes. He said, “I’m not going to actually blow up. It’s like saying I’m hungry enough to eat an elephant. If I did that, I’d die. Like the old lady who swallowed the horse.” I told him, “Oh, then, since you were just being hyperbolic, keep cleaning.” He gave a huge groan–which he does any time you “got” him–and he finished cleaning.

The significance here, of course, is that he not only used metaphorical language–hyperbole is of course metaphorical–and use it correctly, but was able to explain it. That doesn’t mean he’s now going to get that people are being metaphorical and will no longer stop taking people literally (I’m a poet, playwright, and fiction writer, dealing with metaphors all the time in my reading and writing, and I still take people literally when I shouldn’t), but he’s on the way to doing it less often. It’s important to understand that people don’t always “mean what they say” in this sense.

Daniel receives a variety of special education services at his elementary school, Arapaho Classical Magnet, including speech. A good speech teacher and a good special education program in general will get results, and I think we’re seeing some of those results in Daniel’s development of these skills. After all, among the foci of his ARD is being able to initiate conversations. That’s not something I have tried to work on with him, though I have tried to help him with non-literal language (something I’m better with because of my being a language artist, while I still struggle with initiating conversations outside of bombarding you with my interests). So I’m glad at the progress his teachers have made with him, and I think it’s important to give credit when it’s due. After all, our first instinct often seems to be to just complain when something goes wrong–and perhaps we need to focus more on giving credit when something goes right.

Our Autism Talk at the University of Texas at Dallas

In April 2016, Anna and I gave a presentation to a graduate class at the University of Texas at Dallas on our family’s experience with autism. We talked about our discovery that Daniel had autism, and the reasons I didn’t think there was anything wrong with Daniel–at least until it was clear he had a speech delay. The reasons, of course, were that I behaved much like he was behaving, and I of course was behaving that way because I, too, am on the spectrum.

One of the great things about our discussion with the graduate class is that we aren’t a one-trick pony. You can find people who can talk about their family experience with autism, and you can find people who can talk about the scientific aspects of autism, but how many people can do both? Other than Temple Grandin, of course.

You can see that mixture on this blog. I talk about the latest research I found, but I also talk about personal things, like little things Daniel has done. I think it’s important to both understand the underlying genetics/neurobiology as well as particular expressions that result. Of course, those particular expressions can range from meltdowns to taking things literally to various obsessions to (in my case) writing poetry and plays.

While everyone wants to hear about the problems, we also think it’s important to talk about the positive things. More, I am of the view that autism is a structural difference that gives rise to a different kind of thinking and a different kind of mind. And I try to communicate that as much as possible. I also try to talk about job-related issues. And, with Daniel, school-related issues.

Indeed, we talked about some of the problems I have had with finding and keeping employment. And we talked about some of the issues we have had with the school. The good news on that front is that Daniel has a fantastic Kindergarten teacher at Arapaho Classical Magnet here in Richardson, and the support staff all seem to like Daniel and think he’s sweet.

We hope that we can talk to more groups about autism in the future. We have given a talk at The Warren Center and to a graduate class at UT-Dallas. We are will hoping that these are just the beginning.

Daniel’s Stoic Philosophy

Last night Dylan threw up after having had a stomach ache all day. Waiting to get in the shower after he threw up, Dylan was very upset and said he hopes he never gets sick again. Daniel responded, in perfect stoic philosophy fashion, that Dylan will indeed get sick again.

Of course, most people would take such a statement as literally the opposite of comforting. We’d be outright offended if an adult said what he said. However, Daniel meant it as a kind of comfort. It was clear, from the way he said it, that it was meant to help Dylan be less upset. If he’s certain to get sick again, it makes no sense to get this upset now about it. Perfect stoic logic.

Of course, this isn’t the first time Daniel demonstrated stoic logic. Dylan is a bit OCD, and he cannot stand to get any water on his clothes. And I do mean the smallest drop of water will make him want to change clothes.

One day, while I was wetting his hair to make it more manageable, I got his shirt a little wet. Dylan of course started complaining that I got the shirt wet and that he wanted to change his shirt. Daniel overheard him and came and tried to comfort him by explaining the concept of evaporation. He told Dylan that over time the water would turn into air, so there was no point in getting upset, since the shirt would be dry soon.

Again, this was Daniel trying to comfort Dylan. Daniel takes a very practical approach to solving emotional problems that is likely to seem cold to most people. But if you think about it, what’s a better demonstration of concern than to actually help you change the way you think about a situation so you’re no longer upset?

Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s Sensory-Friendly Performance

Earlier this year (in February), my entire family attended a special concert for families with autistic children put on by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. This sensory-friendly performance was the second annual performance, and it is the idea of the conductor himself, Jaap van Zweden. The linked news story is from last year, when the first one was put on. We only learned about it this year.

As it turns out, conductor Jaap van Zweden has an autistic son. It is actually not that uncommon for creative types such as Zweden (or myself—I am a poet, fiction writer, and playwright) to have children on the spectrum. Silicon Valley is famously full of autistic children (and their mildly autistic parents). It should perhaps not be surprising that a combination of strong pattern-detection, strong visual memory, strong long-term memory, weak censor, and weak tendency to follow the crowd (or even be aware of the crowd) is associated with artistic creativity.

Now, I wish I could report that the symphony had the same effect on Daniel as did Balloonacy, but perhaps because there is so much music in our house and perhaps because Melina is taking piano lessons, so he has heard this kind of music before, he didn’t seem all that into it. Of course, it may have been just that he was in a new place and was therefore uncomfortable. He mostly slumped in his chair, but then he also sat in my lap for a bit, during which time he seemed to be paying more attention to the orchestra.

Of course, his lack of complete focus may have been because he also had something on his mind about which he was primarily concerned, and therefore was barely aware that there was interesting music taking place. The day before, he had bought a solar system to hang up in his room, and I told him we were going to put it together when we got home from the symphony. And that, of course, is precisely what we did the minute we walked through the door. Because when Daniel prioritizes, he prioritizes hard.

On the other hand, he did say he recognized one of the pieces. J. Strauss, Jr’s. On the Beautiful Blue Danube Waltz, Op. 314. It’s sometimes hard to tell when he’s really paying attention to something. Things in the periphery are often what people one the spectrum are really paying attention to. Maybe he’ll be more into it next year.

Regular readers of my blog know that I have written before about the sensory-friendly performances at the Dallas Children’s Theater, particularly Balloonacy, which was turned into a video. I am happy that these sensory-friendly performances are starting to spring up in Dallas. They allow autistic children to get exposure to culture, and they allow families such as ours to be able to go out to places without our worrying about how Daniel will behave or react.