Autism Awareness
    The Physics Of Parenting On The Autism Spectrum
    By Mom NOS | April 14th 2010 12:01 AM | 10 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    On raising a son on the autism spectrum, progressive politics, pop culture, and coffee addiction....

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    For me, parenting a child with autism sometimes feels like taking high school physics.

    I was never a science-minded kid. I was a writer. I did theater. I was all about the liberal arts. But, science and me? We never really hit it off.

    Despite that, I enrolled in AP Physics in my senior year. At the time, I was swayed by the certainty of a classmate who told me that without physics I would never make it through college – never mind through life. She’s probably a nuclear physicist now – I never thought to ask her about her plans for the future. Instead, I just took her advice and signed up for the toughest physics class my high school offered.

    Just weeks into the semester, I started to panic. I was a high achiever in high school. I expected to do well and I expected things to come easily to me. But physics did not come easily. Shortly after the class began, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to handle it. I worried that I’d be a failure. I worried that my inadequacy in physics would set me on a cataclysmic downward spiral toward certain ruin.

    I felt, in other words, much the same way that I felt eighteen years later when my son was diagnosed with autism.

    Luckily, I learned a lot in that high school physics class. Eighteen years later, I didn’t remember much about calculations regarding force and motion, but I did remember this:

    There were three things that got me through AP Physics.
    1. I approached the task with confidence;
    2. I worked harder than I had ever worked before; and
    3. I discovered that the key to success was in learning to ask the right questions.

    They are the same three things that have helped me to be successful at raising my son.

    It’s that third factor – learning to ask the right questions – that’s been running through my mind as I’ve thought about writing this post for Scientific Blogging (and oh! How I wish my high school physics teacher knew that I was writing for something called Scientific Anything.)

    In recent weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about asking the right questions, because I was on the receiving end of a list of extraordinary questions about autism from my son’s fourth grade classmates, and I met with the class to give them my answers. I’ve written about that experience here.

    One question and answer from that meeting has sparked a lot of interest in the autism blogosphere. The question from the children was, simply, “what is autism?”

    I explained my answer this way:

    Our brains are machines, made of neurons and cells and tissue. But imagine if they were simpler machines made of metal and plastic and wire. Imagine if they were toasters. If we had toaster brains, we would create a world in which the most important things we did involved making toast.

    Now, let’s imagine that people with autism also have brains made of metal and plastic and wire, but when their metal and plastic and wire are put together, they don’t turn into toasters; they turn into hair dryers. There’s nothing wrong with hair dryers. Hair dryers are really effective for some things. When you have wet hair, a hair dryer is INFINITELY more effective than a toaster.
    But when the whole world is organized around your ability to make toast, and all you have is a hair dryer, you’re going to have to work a lot harder, take a lot longer, and have toast that looks and tastes different from everyone else’s.

    And so it is with autism. Those of us with typical brains have created a society that rewards social skill, facility with language, and flexible, dynamic thinking, which means things are often more difficult, take longer, and look different for a person with autism. My son has an extraordinary memory, skill with the computer, and an incredibly capacity for consistency and repetition. But it doesn’t help him make toast.

    The toaster brain/hair dryer brain metaphor took off in the online autism community, and I found myself flooded with comments and e-mails from people expressing their appreciation for a way to explain autism to the people in their lives. My answer seemed to make a real difference to people.

    And it was all because a group of fourth graders asked the right questions.

    So, it started me thinking, as I considered writing a blog post geared to a scientific community: What are the issues I’ve noted in my life with an autistic child, or the patterns I’ve seen as I’ve learned about other children with autism, that have made me wonder, “Is anyone looking into this?”

    And I’ve thought about things like this:

    What is it about barometric pressure that triggers problematic behavior in kids with autism? Why do we parents often know by our children’s demeanor that a low pressure system is headed our way?

    Why do so many autistic children seem to have a deep connection to the ocean? Is it merely the result of sensory issues? Or is there something more primal, something related to the tides, some tie-in to that sensitivity to changes in atmospheric pressure?

    What is the connection between sleep issues and “autistic” behavior? Does the activity level of an autistic brain prevent a child from getting quality sleep, or does an inadequate amount of quality sleep exacerbate the difficult behaviors associated with autism? Is this a self-perpetuating cycle?

    To what extent does the extraordinary memory of many children with autism contribute to their anxiety and perseveration? What is happening in that child’s brain? Is it more accurate to consider that function an extreme ability to remember, or a diminished capacity to forget?

    And what are the other things that we parents of children with autism keep asking each other, but never think to mention to the people who are out there doing the actual research that can help us achieve greater understanding and intervene more effectively with our kids?

    Maybe it’s just about asking the right questions.

    Incidentally, in case you’re wondering. I ended up getting an A in AP Physics. And while the final calculations haven’t been made yet on my parenting work, the midterm grades are in, and things are looking really good.

    Friday: Autism Basic Science and Intervention Through Art

    If you're interested in reading additional articles on autism, ScientificBlogging's Autism Awareness page provides a listing of all the articles on our site that touch on the subject.


    Kimberly Crandell
    For anyone that has a spare moment, and wants to be reassured that the youth of our world are defined more by curiosity, compassion, and acceptance than anything else... I encourage you to read the series of blog posts by Mom-NOS about her visit and talk to her son's classroom. 

    I am absolutely inspired by her description of what happened when her son's classmates were given the opportunity to ask about Bud's autism.  I believe that is was a "course-correcting" moment for these kids, and everyone else that has been touched by the experience.  Like Mom-NOS, I hope to hear how this one talk, during one lunch-hour, on one afternoon, impacts these children and their future attitudes and actions towards individuals that are "not less, just different."
    I think you raise a really good point...are we asking the right questions? Not just of ourselves as parents raising children (with or without learning differences or disabilities), but of those who have the "power" of immense financial resources to devote to research and to developing services across the lifespan.

    Mom NOS is an inspiration to be sure. I used the same hair dryer/toaster conversation to talk about difference with my nuero-typical kids, as Mom NOS did with the 4th graders in her son's class. They got it, right away. Difference is not necessarily equal to bad - and the differences my kids have are also not bad... just different.

    I used to teach Future Problem Solving to elementary-aged children, and as anyone can tell you- the hardest part isn't the problem solving- it's the problem FINDING. Mom-nos raises some very interesting questions- and these are not just "scientific" questions- these are real world questions looking for a scientific answer to help with real life.

    Her use of metaphors is particularly strong- and as someone who taught, metaphors often lead us to the questions AND answers...

    Excellent article! Independent of your physics skills, your writing skills are par none!
    My 4th grade son is also an "Aspie". I had a similar metaphor that I had used in the past but I actually like yours with the toaster and hair dryer much better! If you don't mind, I will propagate it as well. One of the qualities your son probably has that my son has as well, is the ability to FOCUS on a particular subject of interest. Because of this focus, my son knows more about Megaman, knows more about the history of the Universal Studios Logo, knows more about Lego Starwars, than anyone else on the planet. All because of his incredible ability to focus entirely on one preferred subject for long periods of time. This is a quality that hopefully will make him a very valuable participant in society! Now if I can just figure out how to direct his preferences!!!


    Larry Arnold
    Hi, we know each other from another place :)
    I love the Toast analogy, and will use it.  Thanks!
    Alex, next door at the Daytime Astronomer
    I find myself in the unusual position of being the father of an autistic child (4 years old, PDD NOS) as well as being a physicist. Ironically, I kept with physics for reasons akin to MOM-NOS. I found it more challenging that other work and I turned out to be fairly good at it. [B's my first couple years of college, so you never know.]

    I like the toaster metaphor. My autistic son picks up some things amazingly easy. He seems a natural with music. Seems to be doing OK with letters and numbers. Yet, clueless about some things one would consider fundamental. Say, toilet training.

    It's a great challenge for someone whose professional work is all about logic. Autism is anything BUT logic. It does make me think of art. I was clueless about that, but seem to be learning the art of Secondo (my autistic son).


    I find myself in the unusual position of being the father of an autistic child (4 years old, PDD NOS) as well as being a physicist.
    Not so unusual, and you're not alone.  I mean that in a good way :)

    The Daytime Astronomer
    What is it about barometric pressure that triggers problematic behavior in kids with autism? Why do we parents often know by our children’s demeanor that a low pressure system is headed our way?

    In answer to your question, I have autism. Asperger's syndrome to be exact. When the barometric pressure changes, I get headaches, severe ringing in my ears, dizziness, and pressure in my head. I think it's because a lot of autistic people have heightened senses, almost like animals.