I Was 35 When I Discovered I’m on the Autism Spectrum

“Do you hate crowds, especially at supermarkets and restaurants?”

I avoided eye contact, which I knew I wasn’t supposed to do. “Yes.”

If Dr. P. noticed, she was too busy looking at the questionnaire to let on. “Do you tend to repeat heard words, parts of words, or TV commercials?”

I immediately flashed back to middle school, randomly repeating such phrases from TV as, “I don’t think so, Tim,” from Home Improvement. I was tempted to respond that way this time. Instead, I just replied with another, “Yes.”

“Do you have trouble sustaining conversations?”

“Yes.”

“Is your voice often louder than the situation requires?”

“Yes.”

“Do you find yourself resistant to change?”

“Yes.”

“Do you have restricted interests, like watching the same video over and over?”

“Yes.”

“Did you start reading and/or memorizing books at an early age?”

Eye contact suddenly became much, much easier. “Wait — isn’t that a good thing?”

“It is. But did you do that?”

I went back to boring a hole in the carpet with my eyes. “Yes.”

“Have you ever picked up and smelled random objects, like toys when you were younger?”

“That’s a sign?”

“Sometimes. Did you do that?”

“…yes.” I wanted to puke.

After a few more questions, she did some totaling. “Well,” she finally said, “it’s likely you have ADHD and social anxiety disorder, and you’re on the autism spectrum.”

I slumped back into the overstuffed chair. “Great,” I said. “Triple threat.”

I was 35 years old.

Gut bacteria may offer a treatment for autism

Autism affects people’s social behaviour and communication, and may impair their ability to learn things. All this is well known. Less familiar to most, though, are the gastrointestinal problems associated with the condition. The intestines of children with autism often harbour bacteria different from those in the guts of the neurotypical. As a consequence, such people are more than three times as likely as others are to develop serious alimentary-canal disorders at some point in their lives.

Unfortunate though this is, the upset gut floras of autistic people are seen by some investigators as the key to the condition—and to treating it. Recent research has shown that altering animals’ intestinal bacteria can have dramatic effects on their nervous systems. Ameliorating autism by tinkering with the ecology of the gut might thus be a fruitful line of inquiry.

A study just published in Neuron suggests that it is. In it, Mauro Costa-Mattioli of Baylor College of Medicine, in Texas, and his colleagues demonstrate that introducing a particular bacterium into the guts of mice that display autistic symptoms can abolish some of those symptoms. The bug in question is Lactobacillus reuteri. It is commonly found in healthy digestive systems and helps regulate acidity levels. And it is also easily obtainable for use as a probiotic from health-food shops.

.. Clearly, autism in people is more complicated than a mere willingness to associate with others. And getting too excited about a mouse trial is usually a mistake. But in Dr Costa-Mattioli’s view his results, which have been replicated in part by Evan Elliot’s laboratory in Bar-Ilan University, Israel, would justify embarking on at least preliminary trials intended to determine whether L. reuteri has positive effects on people with autism, and might thus be worth pursuing.

Others agree. Sarkis Mazmanian of the California Institute of Technology works in the same area. He says of these results: “I think the bar is now very low for getting this research moved on to human trials since most people already have these bacteria inside them and we know there are few, if any, safety or toxicity issues.”

What My Son With Autism Taught Me About Managing People

Recognizing and working with colleagues’ different cognitive styles helps get the most out of everyone

.. It wasn’t until he received his first formal diagnosis—initially for ADHD, rather than autism—that I realized his brain was just wired differently from mine. I was able to recognize how often I was asking him to do something he couldn’t do, rather than something he wouldn’t do. Even more important, I started to see the connection between his wiring and his talents, like his mathematical ability and his extraordinary vocabulary.

.. Once I recognized those distinctions as a mom, I started seeing them in my professional relationships, too.

.. After my son’s diagnosis, I started to pay attention to how different members of the team did or didn’t participate in our regular sit-downs.

For instance, my own wiring pushes me to jump in, get as many of my ideas on the table as possible, and then push toward a decision. But one smart young man, who was absolutely brimming with ideas, wasn’t apt to speak during meetings. He once explained to me, “I need time to reflect before I’m ready to share my ideas.”

.. After that, I started breaking our meetings into two parts: part one to lay out our goals and any relevant background, plus invite ideas from people whose wiring was set up to present ideas the way I did. In part two, I’d invite input from those who needed time. Our meetings became much tighter and more effective, and we started to tap into the wisdom of our whole team.

.. Then there were those people—kinetic learners—who I realized aren’t built to sit still. To think or learn to their full ability, they need to move around, such as pacing or jiggling their knee or leaving the office at lunch to do a thousand-calorie workout.

.. But with my new mind-set, I started to schedule walking meetings whenever I was huddling one-on-one and didn’t need to take a lot of notes; I used voice dictation on my phone to capture key takeaways as we walked.

.. Getting outside and moving around not only helped my kinetic colleagues think more clearly and creatively, but also helped me discover that moving around gets me thinking differently, too.

.. It never dawned on me that many people’s wiring isn’t set up to read throat clearing or glances at a phone as signs that it’s time to wrap up a chat, so they need more direct signals. But now if I find someone isn’t picking up on my cues, I say explicitly, for instance, “I need to end our conversation now so that I can get back to work.”

.. I have always been someone who remembers ideas and theories more than facts and anecdotes, but I had never thought about how that affects my professional relationships. I just noticed that I often had to repeat an idea three or four times before my colleagues finally understood or retained it. “Why can’t they understand the idea of aggregating and tagging social-media content?” I might fret.

.. Once I started peppering my conversations with specific, concrete examples for each of my abstract ideas, I found my colleagues were much faster to embrace my ideas on everything from software projects to marketing campaigns.

Soon, it took fewer repetitions for me to get my ideas across—but I also became more patient with the repetition, because I realized that I wasn’t speaking their language.

.. I have long realized that I have challenges with what psychologists call “executive function”—namely, the ability to break a project apart into component tasks and organize those tasks so that they can be completed on time. I’m the kind of person who has a messy desk and can easily miss deadlines, so I’ve gradually built up a set of digital tools and habits that mostly compensate for my state of mental disorganization.

.. When I start working with someone new, I let them know that I am not great at keeping track of tasks and details, so I invite them to remind me if anything slips.

Thresholds of Violence

But Granovetter thought it was a mistake to focus on the decision-making processes of each rioter in isolation. In his view, a riot was not a collection of individuals, each of whom arrived independently at the decision to break windows. A riot was a social process, in which people did things in reaction to and in combination with those around them. Social processes are driven by our thresholds—which he defined as the number of people who need to be doing some activity before we agree to join them.

.. riots were started by people with a threshold of zero—instigators willing to throw a rock through a window at the slightest provocation. Then comes the person who will throw a rock if someone else goes first. He has a threshold of one. Next in is the person with the threshold of two.

.. Next to him is someone with a threshold of three, who would never break windows and loot stores unless there were three people right in front of him who were already doing that—and so on up to the hundredth person, a righteous upstanding citizen who nonetheless could set his beliefs aside and grab a camera from the broken window of the electronics store if everyonearound him was grabbing cameras from the electronics store.

Granovetter was most taken by the situations in which people did things for social reasons that went against everything they believed as individuals. “Most did not think it ‘right’ to commit illegal acts or even particularly want to do so,” he wrote, about the findings of a study of delinquent boys. “But group interaction was such that none could admit this without loss of status; in our terms, their threshold for stealing cars is low because daring masculine acts bring status, and reluctance to join, once others have, carries the high cost of being labeled a sissy.” You can’t just look at an individual’s norms and motives. You need to look at the group.

.. the way to explain the school-shooting epidemic

.. think of it as a slow-motion, ever-evolving riot, in which each new participant’s action makes sense in reaction to and in combination with those who came before?

.. Then came Columbine. The sociologist Ralph Larkin argues that Harris and Klebold laid down the “cultural script” for the next generation of shooters.

.. Harris said he wanted to “kick-start a revolution.”

.. Larkin looked at the twelve major school shootings in the United States in the eight years after Columbine, and he found that in eight of those subsequent cases the shooters made explicit reference to Harris and Klebold.

.. Larkin says six were plainly versions of Columbine; of the eleven cases of thwarted shootings in the same period, Larkin says all were Columbine-inspired.

.. The kid who wants to be a chef and hears “non-specific, non-violent” voices requires a finely elaborated script in order to carry out his attack. That’s what Paton and Larkin mean: the effect of Harris and Klebold’s example was to make it possible for people with far higher thresholds—boys who would ordinarily never think of firing a weapon at their classmates—to join in the riot.

  • Aguilar dressed up like Eric Harris.
  • He used the same weapons as Harris.
  • He wore a backpack like Harris’s.
  • He hid in the changing room of the store until 11:14 a.m.—the precise time when the Columbine incident began—and then came out shooting.

.. Between Columbine and Aaron Ybarra, the riot changed: it became more and more self-referential, more ritualized, more and more about identification with the school-shooting tradition.

  • Eric Harris wanted to start a revolution.
  • Aguilar and Ybarra wanted to join one.
  • Harris saw himself as a hero. Aguilar and Ybarra were hero-worshippers.

.. “My number one idol is Eric Harris. . . . I think I just see myself in him. Like he would be the kind of guy I’d want to be with. Like, if I knew him, I just thought he was cool.”

..“He appears to lack typical relational capacity for family members. . . .He indicates that he would have completed the actions, but he doesn’t demonstrate any concern or empathy for the impact that that could have had on others.” The conclusion of all three of the psychologists who spoke at the hearing was that LaDue had a mild-to-moderate case of autism: he had an autism-spectrum disorder (A.S.D.), or what used to be called Asperger’s syndrome.

.. When should he attack? April made the best sense, “because that’s the month that all the really bad tragedies happened like . . . Titanic, Columbine, Oklahoma City bombing, Boston bombing.”

.. He was even more scathing about the Boston bombers’ use of pressure-cooker bombs. He thought they made a “crappy design of it.”

.. In the world before Columbine, people like LaDue played with chemistry sets in their basements and dreamed of being astronauts.

.. The idea that people with autism-spectrum disorders can stumble into patterns of serious criminality has a name: counterfeit deviance. It has long been an issue in cases involving A.S.D. teen-agers and child pornography. “They are intellectually intact people, with good computer skills but extraordinary brain-based naïveté, acting in social isolation, compulsively pursuing interests which often unknowingly take them into forbidden territory,”

..  But the riot has now engulfed the boys who were once content to play with chemistry sets in the basement. The problem is not that there is an endless supply of deeply disturbed young men who are willing to contemplate horrific acts. It’s worse. It’s that young men no longer need to be deeply disturbed to contemplate horrific acts.