Somehow, we parents are compelled to trace and even claim family traits in our children. It can be a source of pride. I can’t tell you how pleased my husband, an architect, was when he recognized that our son explored the volume of every building we entered, even at the tender age of 3. We weren’t surprised when the neuro-psych testing conducted years later confirmed that he had superior spatial reasoning. OK, so it was bundled inside a autism diagnosis, but this particular sort of exceptionality was something we had wished for in our children. There were advantages.
Of course, there were disadvantages too, and it was these that lead us to the testing to begin with. And here’s where laying claim to my child's traits can be a source of constant worry. Perhaps it is just the intensity of my focus on the subject or a mother’s guilt, but I swear I am recognizing the PDD-NOS, not only in him, but also in me.
I can be quite literal. I obsess on subjects of interest to me. I can recall conversations verbatim and at one time had the habit of replaying them to myself over and over again, even those that were mundane, trying to understand the nuances I either missed or over-focused upon, because I can be prone to that, too. And as for sensitivities to fabrics and tags, well, I’ve had that, but don’t we all? Don’t we?
I’m drifting dangerously close into a now notorious autism debate — whether it is caused by genetic or some environmental factor (vaccines for instance). Normally, I'd keep my distance. However, this week, I’m feeling a little more PDD than usual, perhaps because I recently made a huge upgrade in my computer equipment and software. I’ve been geeking-out exploring the latest features of Adobe Photoshop and am just amazed by how far it’s capabilities have come since I first studied design and printing. As a college freshman, I learned traditional graphic arts photography and typesetting skills — deep in the darkroom ages of the trade. The Apple Macintosh was introduced a few years later and I’ve been chasing technology ever since. Although I chose to major in design because I was attracted to the hands-on creativity, it's been the geek in me that has helped me continue and survive in this career.
To give you an idea what a autie-like creature I can be — and stick with me because I will relate this back in just a second — when I was pregnant with my first child, my daughter, I obsessed with the typical reading list; What to Expect When You’re Expecting, etc. But then I moved onto a book that truly fascinated and engaged me for the full 9 months of reading and, unlike the others, has ever since, Mother Nature, A History of Mothers, Infants, and Natural Selection by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy. I’ve thought about it a great deal lately, especially as I’ve tried to comprehend my son’s autism. Perhaps it is my search for a silver lining that has lead me to wonder if it’s not a genealogical or environmental cause but is instead a matter of phenotype. In other words, what if autism is natural selection at work?
Acording to a 2009 article on CBS, 1 out of every 100 children are diagnosed with ASD. That’s huge. Granted, there are portions of the spectrum that can be debilitating and complicate my argument that ASD is an evolutionary advantage, but when I look at my son with PDD-NOS, I can’t help but realize how perfectly suited he is to a world saturated with graphic interfaces and sensor technology.
Perhaps this is why I returned to Hrdy’s book as I struggled to understand my role in my son’s autism diagnosis — was I the cause (did he get it from me?) or the mothering "cure" (we follow a GF/CF diet)? Among the many fascinating facts about motherhood to be newly appreciated in her book, today I think I found the one that I must have been searching for all along, the statement that sort of let’s me off the hook (on page 56):
The important point here is that all anyone ever sees, touches, or directly experiences is phenotypes, never genes. It is phenotypes that interface with the world and interact with others in it. Only phenotypes are directly exposed to natural selection. This is why, evolutionarily speaking, and especially for those like me who study behavior, phenotypes are what matters.
Of course, it was easy to convince me, an identical twin, that it takes much more than genes to develop an individual set of characteristics. And while, I'm not quite off the hook entirely (genes and parenting are involved in developing phenotypes) somehow, that there are traits deeply embedded in his genetic code, in mine even, that have simply "switched on" in response to the environmental context in a way that is typical of our highly adaptable species, is a much more palatable point of view for me. This example of phenotypes and morphs and much more about her almost purely scientific, mother-focused but not autism-specific book was hugely comforting to me.
Silver Lining: I am far from a scientist. Hrdy’s book was then, and still is, a bit over my head. But I turned to it all the same because raising a child with autism put me in the deep end treading water anyway. Just as I’ve had to keep teaching myself the latest version of the same software program for the past 20 years, it's what I've had to do to survive.
I initially returned to Hrdy's book to look up a species of caterpillar that, depending upon its diet alone, could develop into utterly different looking organisms. I had been wondering, worrying, could it be as simple as something I ate, as diet? And if it was not the milk I drank or the vaccines I gave him, then what about, as a freelance designer, my daily and relatively solitary immersion into technology? Could I give it to him in this way?
Who knows if there's an autism-related answer there. But I'm glad I rediscovered her book now because in example after example she returns to a sole premise; of all the many magically varied forms and twists natural organisms and our biology finds in existence, they do so with singular purpose — to survive.
There is comfort in that to me. After all, when I look to the future, I imagine technology advancing at an even faster pace in a world full of social interactions that are (omg) wildly different than what I’ve experienced. And in this world, I can imagine a place for my son, a place where, eventually, he’ll succeed beautifully.
"Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants, and Natural Selection" by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Pantheon Books, New York