April is World Autism Month. Autism awareness is a relatively recent phenomenon. When I was growing up in Canada there was no public awareness of autism. Thus, my parents had no support or resources available to know why my childhood was different from the experience of other kids and how to help me thrive.
I never even heard of autism until I emigrated to the United States to do postdoctoral research on quasars and galaxies at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). A year after I started my postdoctoral research, an astrophysicist from Europe came to Caltech as a visiting research fellow. His office was on the same floor of the Robinson Laboratory as my office. At times, I could hear him yelling at other astronomers to stay out of his office and imploring them not to turn on his office lights or to open his door. I heard him explaining that it was not that he disliked any of us, but that because he was autistic he needed his office to be dark, quiet, and devoid of visitors in order to be productive in his research.
What Is Autism?
Autism is a human condition related to brain development that affects how a person perceives, communicates, and socializes with other people. Because autism is manifested in many different ways across a spectrum of symptoms and severity, neuropsychologists now refer to it as autism spectrum disorder or ASD. Another term, Asperger’s syndrome, is sometimes used to refer to people either at the mild end of the spectrum or to people manifesting serious symptoms but possessing a high intelligence quotient.
Regardless of where people are on the autism spectrum, they share the following features in common:
- They experience difficulty in sensing the emotions and feelings of others.
- They experience difficulty in sensing their own emotions and feelings.
- Their emotional responses are often delayed by hours and days.
- They experience difficulty in determining what other people are thinking.
- They struggle making eye contact or facial expressions.
- They experience difficulty in recognizing nonverbal cues, suggestions, and hints.
- They don’t anticipate or pick up easily on simple verbal questions and directions, often needing simple verbal questions and directions to be repeated.
- They pick up on a conversation only after several words are spoken.
- They prefer predictable routines, patterns, and order and they dislike change.
- They are insensitive to the personal appearance of themselves and others.
- They are insensitive to inappropriate phrases, words, and comments.
- They are atypically sensitive to light, sound, and touch but insensitive to air temperature.
- They often fixate on a subject, activity, or object.
- They experience difficulty in simultaneously coordinating their physical bodies and their mental thoughts.
- They express atypical memory selection.
People at the more severe end of the ASD may be unable to start or keep a conversation going. They may speak in an abnormal or robot-like, monotonic tone. They may not be able to tolerate any kind of touch. They may retreat into their own world, preferring to live as a hermit. They may engage in repetitive rituals and/or body movements, for example, rocking, hand flapping, or spinning. They may engage in self-harm activities. They may only tolerate a very limited range of foods, clothes, and environments.
While people on the spectrum are neuroatypical in struggling with many social handicaps, they are also atypically gifted in several ways. They are able to focus on a subject or problem to a degree beyond that of neurotypical people. Because of their inability to hide their lies and deceptions, they often develop into trustworthy and honest people. While they struggle in their relationships with humans, they often excel in their relationships with birds and nonhuman mammals. People with ASD who don’t suffer from another neural handicap are almost always able to perform a specific mental task far better and more quickly than neurotypical people.
ASD is reportedly on the rise. However, there is no undisputed evidence that the proportion of ASD people in the general population is any higher today than it was 50, 100, or 1,000 years ago. What is on the rise is autism awareness. This increasing awareness adequately explains why more children and adults are diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum than was the case 10, 20, 50, or 100 years ago.
The Internet is filled with articles and diagnostic tools on ASD. Consequently, it is not just medical practitioners and psychologists that are diagnosing people as being on the autism spectrum, many ASD people or relatives and friends of ASD people are making the diagnosis.
For the past 30 years, a major controversy has arisen. Some people assert that a causal link exists between ASD and childhood vaccines. However, no reliable, peer-reviewed study has shown a link between ASD and any vaccines, regardless of when the vaccines were administered.
Medical researchers are currently exploring other possible risk factors for ASD, including pregnancy complications and exposure to viral medications, antibiotics, and air pollution. So far, there is no conclusive evidence linking any such risk factors with ASD.
The one undisputed causal link with ASD is genetics. A parent who is on the autism spectrum is more likely to have a child who is on the spectrum. The fact that ASD is consistently four times more likely for males than for females argues for a genetic cause and against environmental causes.
Several different genes strongly correlate with ASD. The diversity of these genes helps explain why autism disorder is manifested as a spectrum of widely diverse symptoms.
ASD symptoms are rarely seen until a child is at least 1–2 years old. During early childhood, ASD children may lose, or at least appear to lose, language skills they already acquired and they may transition from socially engaged to socially withdrawn. During school grades 1 through 6, ASD children may learn quickly, often much more quickly than other children, but experience difficulty in communicating and applying what they have learned. As they enter their teens and twenties, ASD individuals may bore others with their core dumps of everything they know about a particular narrow subject.
Almost all ASD people struggle mightily in their attempts to develop close friendships with others. And starting or sustaining a dating relationship is often either frustrating or perceived as an insurmountable challenge. The divorce rate among ASD people who do marry is much higher than it is among neurotypical people.
At least for ASD people of normal or high intelligence, ASD’s negative symptoms can be mitigated or even eradicated. When ASD people seek help and training from neurotypical people, at least some of their socially problematic symptoms will diminish. When this help and training persists over years and decades, some symptoms can diminish to a point where neurotypical people no longer recognize the symptoms.
ASD people progress especially well in moderating their problematic symptoms when they discover and develop their special atypical gift(s). Occasionally, ASD people are able to discover and develop their gift(s) without anyone else’s help. Much better outcomes occur, however, when parents, close relatives, and teachers proactively assist ASD people in discovering and developing their gift(s).
I have personally observed that one of the most effective ways of helping ASD children discover their special gifting is to expose them to books and resources that are at least six grade levels above what is normal for their age. When they excel in understanding and applying what they are reading or viewing, and especially when they become passionate about the advanced material they are studying, then the pathway to discovering and developing their special gift(s) becomes clear.
My Autism Journey
I don’t just speak and write about autism from my scientific studies. I do so from personal experience.
The Early Years
My parents told me that I was socially engaged when I was an infant and that I quickly developed a vocabulary of words. They noticed that I would never mix my food and insisted on eating just one item at a time. Whenever my parents mixed my food, I would cry and refuse to eat.
From about ages 2–5, my vocabulary was almost always limited to three words: yes, no, and cookie. Whenever I ventured beyond those three words, I would say inappropriate or awkward things and get reprimanded. I learned to keep my mouth shut.
I was physically uncoordinated. I would often trip and fall. I didn’t know how to interpret or respond to touch and, therefore, I would pull back when any adult approached me. My mother would tell her friends, “Don’t touch Hugh.”
My lack of physical coordination, my expressionless face, and my apparently limited vocabulary resulted in my parents’ friends universally declaring that I was mentally impaired. They advised my parents to place me in an institution for mentally impaired children.
I fully understood the impact of those comments and greatly feared that my parents would act upon their exhortations. I was much relieved when my mother retorted that I was not mentally impaired. She told her friends about the many times I would go off into a corner and do an experiment. I remember my parents saying to their friends, “Just you watch. Hugh is going to become a scientist.” However, I also remember my parents’ friends mocking them for such an unrealistic expectation.
My family moved from Montreal to Calgary when I was four and on to Vancouver when I was five. In my grandmother’s home in Calgary I experimented with starting fires, which, of course, drew my grandmother’s ire. For the rest of my time in Calgary I spent nearly all my time outside with her dog. Her dog and I became best friends.
Once in Vancouver, my parents put me in a public kindergarten class to help socialize me. I remember the kindergarten teacher telling my parents that I was well behaved and quiet but socially unengaged, withdrawn, and apparently afraid to play with other children.
Entering grade 1, I was still socially unengaged, withdrawn, and afraid to play with other children. As the youngest and one of the smallest pupils in the class and being physically uncoordinated, I was regularly picked on by the class bullies.
First grade was my first exposure to books. My parents were poor and could not afford to buy books for me or my sisters. There were no books in my kindergarten class.
I quickly learned how to read but did not like any of the books in our classroom. The stories struck me as inane. Worse, I could not prove to my teacher that I could read. The reading assignments were to read aloud in front of the teacher and the class. My verbal skills were so poor that I always got a failing grade in reading. Furthermore, I was physically unable to make legible letters and numbers with my pencil. Consequently, I was failing in all my subjects. I remember the teacher telling my parents that I would need to repeat first grade and that repeating might be a good way for me to escape the bullying.
A Wise and Caring Teacher
Six weeks before the end of the school year, my parents moved us to a different part of Vancouver. I had a new school and a new first grade teacher. Somehow she sensed my frustration and fear with my failing grades and my verbal communication handicaps. Two weeks before the end of the term, she kept me after class. She pointed out a stack of grade 1 books on her desk and told me she was going to ask me questions about the content of the books. She assured me that I would not need to speak. All I had to do was nod my head for “yes” and shake my head for “no.” By this means she determined that I had read and understood the content of all the books on her desk. She told me she would speak to the principal and do everything she could to persuade him to let me enter grade 2 the following year.
On the last day of class, my teacher read the list of pupils who would be graduating into second grade in order of their academic standing. I waited patiently, hoping that she would finally mention my name. She did, but I was the last one she named.
During the summer between first and second grade, I practiced at least an hour a day trying to make legible letters and numbers with a pencil. By the end of the summer, I was able to write out a whole sentence that someone besides myself could read. During that summer I also discovered a book that had been left behind by the previous residents of our home. It was Charles Dickens’s novel, David Copperfield. It was the first book that I actually enjoyed reading.
On the first day of grade 2 the teacher had us sit in chairs according to our grade 1 academic standing. I was seated in the last chair and had to endure the jeers and labels from other pupils for being the class dummy. Right there, I resolved to do whatever I could to move up from the class dummy chair. I committed to start talking, even if my talking got me into trouble. I knew I had to become more verbally competent.
A month later, our second grade teacher took the entire class on a field trip to the main branch of the Vancouver Public Library. I could not believe my ears when she told us that there were nearly three million books in that library. We were all given membership cards to the children’s section of the library and were told we could borrow as many as five books a week. That day, I took home five books on astronomy and physics. Toward the end of the school year I had read all the astronomy, physics, geology, and chemistry books in the children’s section of the Vancouver Public Library. The librarian gave me a membership card for the adults’ section of the library and told me to come to her if any adults in the library complained about my presence.
I had found my gift. I loved integrating concepts across multiple scientific disciplines. By the end of the second grade I committed to pursuing a career in astronomy. For the last three months of grade 2 I was seated in the first chair.
I tell the rest of the story of my autism journey in our book, Always Be Ready. Included in that story is a meeting I had at age 34 with the teacher I had for the last six weeks of grade 1. At that meeting she told me she was a Christian and how she prayed from the time I was seven years of age that I would become a follower of Jesus Christ and that I would use my studies in science for the glory of God. She was thrilled to discover that her prayers had been answered.
A question I am frequently asked is why a good God would make so many of his human creatures autistic. I answer that question first by pointing out that the ratio of autistic to nonautistic humans is not large. Only 1 person out of 150–200 is on the autism spectrum.1 Those on the spectrum exhibit a wide range of gifting that spans science, art, music, literature, and the humanities. ASD people likely include such luminaries as Mozart, Leonardo de Vinci, Albert Einstein, and Bobby Fischer. They include animal behaviorist Temple Grandin, who has taught us much about relating to and caring for domesticated animals. (For those interested in understanding ASD, I highly recommend the docudrama, Temple Grandin, and Temple Grandin’s website.)
Humanity and human civilization have benefitted significantly from ASD people. I am struck that if the percentage of ASD people in the population were much higher than 1%, social structures would suffer. On the other hand, if the percentage of ASD people were much lower than 0.5%, the advance of civilization, culture, and technology would be slowed. It seems that we have close to the optimal percentage of ASD people in the human population.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus told his disciples, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33, ESV). He also exhorted us to help one another with our tribulations, trials, weaknesses, and handicaps. Those of us who are on the autism spectrum need to be committed to use our gifts and handicaps in the spirit of 2 Corinthians 4 to serve, bless, and teach neurotypical people. We also need to graciously and humbly submit to the training that neurotypical people can provide so that we can gain the social skills that we need. Likewise, neurotypical people need to be committed to use their gifts and handicaps in the same spirit of 2 Corinthians 4 to serve, bless, and teach ASD people and to humbly receive from them the teaching and training they have to offer. We all need to be grateful that God made each person so very different from one another and, hence, so very interesting to get to know and love.
1. Theo Vos et al., (GBD 2015 Disease and Injury Incidence and Prevalence Collaborators), “Global, Regional, and National Incidence, Prevalence, and Years Lived with Disability for 310 Diseases and Injuries, 1990–2015: A Systematic Analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2015,” Lancet 388 (10053), (October 8, 2016): 1545–1602, doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(16)31678-6.