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

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