Ron Fournier, whose son Tyler has autism, is compiling stories and reflections from readers on the spectrum and from their loved ones. Reach out to Ron here with your own experiences. And be on the lookout for his new book, Love That Boy.
Our latest reader contributor and parent of an autistic child strikes a chord with me and my family: Late diagnosis. Check. Solitary life. Check. Crushing rejection. Check. A parent’s desperate dream: “I wish more employers could see past the facade of autism to recognize the smart, hard-working people who simply have minds that are wired differently from the majority of the population.” Here’s our reader in full:
Thanks for sharing so many of these stories. My daughter had some of the typical autism traits as a preschooler, but she was so intelligent, we didn’t think she possibly could be autistic.
As she rose through elementary school, she slowly pulled more into her own little world, and away from all of the other children. By fifth grade, her school guidance counselor told us she was certain my daughter was autistic. As we read more about the spectrum, it was obvious to us, too. We didn’t get her officially diagnosed until she was 16, and then only as a precaution in case she needed help in college.
She never needed help (though she did live at home instead of on campus). She finished college with a 3.9 GPA in biology, with a goal to go to medical school because she always had wanted to help others. Her grades and great MCAT scores earned interviews at medical schools, but she couldn’t get past the admissions interviews.
I understand why they couldn’t see her as a physician. She struggles to look people in the eye. She speaks in a monotone. She answers questions with the fewest words possible. But she would have been amazing at the analytical aspects of pathology.
Crushed by the rejection, she went with a backup plan of lab work. Thankfully, a wonderful instructor saw her potential and accepted her into a histotechnology training program.
When she finished the one-year program, the hospital lab where she trained had no openings for her. For eight months, she got a couple of job interviews a month. Like the med school interviewers, they couldn’t see her working in their labs.
Finally, the lab where she trained had an opening and hired her. They had seen how dedicated and smart she was. Two years later, she is the perfect person to work the overnight shift, which leaves her alone in the lab for about half the shift. Following protocols to the letter every time is so important in lab work, and that’s a strength of many with autism. Her life is very solitary, but she’s happy that she has found her own way to help others.
As parents, it hurt us when she had no real friends in school, and no social life in college, but it never bothered her. It took us a long time to realize her needs for happiness were different from ours. Now, we’re so proud of her, and she even seems proud of herself for finding her own niche in life. I wish more employers could see past the facade of autism to recognize the smart, hard-working people who simply have minds that are wired differently from the majority of the population.
On happiness, it took me years to realize that Tyler’s needs were different from my own. And it was only after digging into research on happiness (and a trip to Monticello, where Thomas Jefferson pursued his) that I sorted through the difference between goodness and pleasure. The latter is what parents most often want for their kids, including neurotypicals. But it’s the former that makes them happy (Marc Gellman sums this up nicely here.)
On employment, it’s worth noting here that Hillary Clinton made big news Monday that was little-noticed in the media. Fielding questions from a campaign audience, Clinton told an autistic lawyer she opposed a Depression-era labor law that allow employers to hire disabled people at a subminimum wage. Sometimes as low as 8 cents per hour. (If you or someone you care about has worked for subminimum wages as a disabled worker, please let me know your story.)
That’s how reader Gary describes his three amazing stepkids:
I was touched by the note about your son Tyler as I read it this morning. It was forwarded to me by my wife of nine years whose three children have all been diagnosed with ASD [autism spectrum disorder]. Her oldest son is 26 and seeking a bachelor’s degree in mathematics with plans to attend graduate school. She has 13-year-old twins who are seventh graders at a public school right now. One of the twins and the oldest son have Asperger’s while the other twin has a more severe form of autism with speech problems and more challenging behavioral issues.
My wife has struggled tirelessly to help her three kids adjust, adapt, and grow into the wonderful human beings they can become. They are so much better off because of their mom. She has faced many obstacles with each child, yet through her fiery determination and strong will, they have overcome those obstacles and were strengthened as a result.
Your note came at a particularly challenging time for her. Last night, as she lay in bed, she told me that she was not a good parent and that she had failed her younger son.
She has adjusted his IEP [individualized education program] so that he does half of his schooling at home under her supervision. He was not particularly excited about his studies that evening and he showed his frustration by ignoring her lessons. This had gone on for about three weeks and she punished him by taking away his various forms of entertainment. She was regretting her decision and felt that he hated her.
I reminded her of how well her two other children have done despite their ASD and how she has helped them overcome so many pitfalls in their lives. I also reminded her that he is so much better off because of her and that he is coming along just like his older brother. She just needed to remember the patience she showed her eldest.
My wife is an amazing woman. She can be so hard on herself because she wants her kids to have a great life. But there are times when so gets depressed trying to make that happen. I can only console her because I don’t understand all of it. The love of a mother for her child is immeasurable, but when there are three of them with ASD and that love is not commonly reciprocated, it can be very difficult to handle.
Your note was uplifting to her when she needed it the most. How do I know this? Her email to me with your forwarded note said, “I love my dandelions!!” I know she does and I know that she is cultivating them in her kitchen for the wonderful characteristics they possess.
Two readers responding to my note on autism reflect two disparate vantage points. The first is a 66-year-old Georgia man with Asperger’s Syndrome, a retired Army officer who has struggled socially his entire life. His subject line: “On the Spectrum.”
[B]oth parents and teachers must understand that not all young people are cut out to be “the leaders of tomorrow”—that some individuals will make their greatest contribution as tinkers or inventors or mechanics or engineers or programmers.
To quote Popeye the Sailor: “I am what I am and that’s all that I am!” And I’ve done okay.
The second is from an elementary school teacher who has taught children on the spectrum. Keith Bohlender of Toronto is neurotypical:
I read “My Little Dandelion,” as well as the Wildhood and Garcia articles, with great interest …. My wife is a speech therapist whose clientele is made up of pre-school children. Many of these children have very recently received diagnoses, or are facing the very real prospect that their beloved child may imminently be diagnosed with ASD [Autism Spectrum Disorder]. My wife is in the exceedingly difficult position of being able, after many years of experience, to expertly recognize the markers that are described in these articles.
She cannot, however, make a formal diagnosis—even when tearfully begged to do so by parents. So, she encourages the parents to seek an opinion from a medical professional.
I am sending all three of these articles to her, with the thought that she may be able to pass them on to some of the parents of her clientele. It may give them comfort and sustenance to read of how adults with ASD are able to cope, contribute and thrive.
Also worth checking out is the video seen above, on how creative expression can help kids with autism. And keep the emails coming—if you’re autistic or the parent of an autistic child and would like to share your story.
I used to dream my son would be an athlete. Now I enjoy watching Tyler chase his own dreams to be a history teacher or comedian. One thing I never considered my boy to be: a dandelion.
Not until I read a Forbes profile on a new acquaintance of mine, Thorkil Sonne, who uses the analogy to describe the brilliant uniqueness of autistic people—like his son and mine:
To most people, the dandelion is nothing more than an annoying weed – something to be rooted out of our lawns and flowerbeds. But what a lot of people don’t know is that, when cultivated, the dandelion is one of the most valuable and useful plants in nature. In many parts of the world, the dandelion is known for its nutritional, healing and medicinal properties. The value of a dandelion is very much dependent on our knowledge and perception of its value.
Most of us don’t want dandelions in our lawns – they don’t fit there. But if you place a dandelion plant in your kitchen garden, and cultivate it, it can turn out to be one of your most valuable plants. Dandelions are used to make beer, wine, salads, and natural medicines. Quite simply, if you choose to cultivate dandelions, you will reap their rewards. So, is a dandelion a weed or an herb? You decide. The same can be said for individuals with autism. The value of what you see depends on your level of understanding and accommodation.
The article describes Thorkil’s efforts to link autistic people with employers who need the distinctive skill sets that come with autism. Most employers don’t know what they’re missing. People with autism aren’t defective; they contribute a special sauce to the human experience. Steve Silberman puts it this way in his book NeuroTribes:
One of the most promising developments since the publication of “The Geek Syndrome” has been the emergence of the concept of neurodiversity: the notion that conditions like autism, dyslexia, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder [ADHD] should be regarded as naturally occurring cognitive variations with distinctive strengths that have contributed to the evolution of technology and culture, rather than mere checklists of deficits and dysfunctions.”
After my son’s diagnosis six years ago, I slowly came to the same conclusion and wrote about it here, here, and here. But there is only so much I can do to help the cause—to help neurotypical people understand what it’s like to be autistic and to realize the value autism offers society—because I’m not truly a part of it. Because I am not autistic.
The perspectives I have on people and the world I’ve interacted with thus far in my life are necessarily informed by my [Asperger’s], whether it looks like I’m an Aspie or not. Ultimately, when my friend told me I don’t look autistic, he was essentially affirming my constructed normalcy, my ability to fake it. In high school, I would have relished in this aptitude to appear “same,” and would have taken his remark as a compliment. But I’ve come to realize that each attempt to somehow make myself more “acceptable” to someone else, more lovable, has left me with what is, in the end, a false connection. I don’t want to be judged based on my [autism] alone, but nor do I want it to not matter. I may not “look autistic” from the outside, but if you see with my eyes, I do.
Please read the powerful stories by Wildhood and Garcia, and let me know what you think. And if you’re autistic or the parent of an autistic child and would like to share your story, I’d love to hear from you as well.
Tyler accept his autism far better than his father once did. “It’s a part of me but I don’t find that it’s a big deal, that I have to be talking about it every five seconds,” he says in a video for Autism Speaks that will be released next month with my parenting memoir, Love That Boy. “Like blue eyes: I don’t talk about how I have blue yes. I have autism, that’s it.”
Trump’s bullying so unnerved the senator that she resorted to a bizarre and tone-deaf move.
How many times during my childhood did my father tell me that when his grandmother and her sister sailed to America, they had traveled “a class above steerage”? I was a Hula-Hooping child of the atomic age, growing strong on USDA beef and Cocoa Puffs. What did I know about steerage? But I knew my father in the complete and inchoate way that a child knows her parent, and I knew he wanted me to understand something important to him and—somehow—to me. I understood the lesson to be: The Flanagans have been down, but they have not been out.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion once wrote. And we tell them inside our families so that something can live within them, some idea or value, some complicated honoring of an elder. Elizabeth Warren’s family—the Herrings—had a story, of course. A central and important one: Her parents’ love had been so strong that they had defied their elders and eloped. Her mother had been rejected by the Herrings because she was “Cherokee and Delaware,” Warren has said many times, which heightened the family romance and gave it mythic dimensions. It’s one of the central American stories; it’s The Searchers.
People who have had sex with fewer people seem to be more satisfied after they tie the knot. Is there hope for promiscuous romantics?
If you are on the proverbial market, as you rack up phone swipes, first dates, and—likely—new sexual partners, you might start to ask yourself, Is all this dating going to make me happier with whomever I end up with?
In other words, are you actually getting any closer to finding “the one”? Or are you simply stuck on a hedonic treadmill of potential lovers, doomed like some sort of sexual Sisyphus to be perpetually close to finding your soul mate, only to realize—far, far too late—that they are deal-breakingly disappointing?
Well, sociology has some unfortunate news!
Over at the Institute for Family Studies, Nicholas Wolfinger, a sociologist at the University of Utah, has found that Americans who have only ever slept with their spouses are most likely to report being in a “very happy” marriage. Meanwhile, the lowest odds of marital happiness—about 13 percentage points lower than the one-partner women—belong to women who have had six to 10 sexual partners in their lives. For men, there’s still a dip in marital satisfaction after one partner, but it’s never as low as it gets for women, as Wolfinger’s graph shows:
Trump and other practitioners may reap short-term gains, but history suggests they will provoke a fearsome backlash.
Anger has a peculiar power in democracies. Skillfully deployed before the right audience, it cuts straight to the heart of popular politics. It is attention-getting, drowning out the buzz of news cycles. It is inherently personal and thereby hard to refute with arguments of principle; it makes the political personal and the personal political. It feeds on raw emotions with a primal power: fear, pride, hate, humiliation. And it is contagious, investing the like-minded with a sense of holy cause.
In recent weeks, it has grown increasingly ubiquitous in American politics. In Montana this past Thursday, President Donald Trump praised Republican Representative Greg Gianforte, who pleaded guilty to assaulting the Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs, saying, “Any guy who can do a body slam … he’s my guy.”
And so are the livelihoods of the people who depend on it.
Ten years ago, Kelly Hopping was driving through a Tibetan mountain pass when her Chinese colleague stopped the car, hopped out, walked to a roadside stall, and returned with what looked like a bag of Cheetos on sticks. Each orange lump was, in fact, a dead caterpillar whose body had been overrun by a fungus (the stick). Hopping’s colleague, whose mother had cancer, had bought them for their medicinal value—and he had parted with an astonishing $1,000 for about 250 pieces. “My mind was blown,” says Hopping, an ecologist at Boise State University.
The caterpillar fungus, Ophiocordyceps sinensis, is the world’s most valuable parasite. It’s a relative of the tropical fungus that turns ants into zombies, but unlike its infamous cousin, it is found only on the Tibetan plateau, where it infects the larvae of ghost moths. It has long been part of traditional Chinese medicine, and demand for it has risen so sharply in recent decades that in Beijing it is now worth three times its weight in gold. In Bhutan, one of the countries where the fungus is harvested, it accounts for a significant slice of the gross domestic product.
Photographs of the U.S.-bound caravan of Central American immigrants over its first 10 days, from Honduras to Mexico, and some of the difficult paths taken by those involved
On October 13, a group of hundreds of people gathered together to flee their impoverished home country of Honduras in a caravan headed toward the United States, seeking a better life for themselves and their families. That caravan quickly swelled to approximately 7,000 Central American immigrants as it passed north through Guatemala. As of today, most of these men, women, and children have just entered Mexico, yet they remain more than a thousand miles south of the U.S. border. President Donald Trump has called the approaching group a “national emergency,” vowed to cut tens of millions of dollars in aid to three Central American countries, and will possibly cancel a recent trade deal with Mexico if the caravan isn’t stopped before it reaches the U.S. Below, photographs of the caravan from its first 10 days and some of the difficult paths taken by those involved.
Kids have a habit of imitating their parents’ criminal behavior. It’s no wonder, then, that by one measure, 10 percent of families account for two-thirds of criminals.
When kids choose a profession, they tend to follow in their parents’ footsteps: Doctors’ children often become doctors, lawyers produce lawyers, and plumbers beget plumbers. So, after 15 years of covering crime and criminal justice for TheNew York Times, I was fascinated by studies—conducted in cities across the United States and in London, England, with near-identical results—showing that crime, too, can run in families. In the most famous study, researchers followed 411 boys from South London from 1961 to 2001 and found that half of the convicted kids were accounted for by 6 percent of all families; two-thirds of them came from 10 percent of the families.
This intergenerational transmission of violence was first documented in the 1940s when a husband-and-wife team at Harvard Law School found that two-thirds of boys in the Boston area sent by a court to a reformatory had a father who had been arrested; 45 percent also had a mother who had been arrested. And, in 2007, the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics concluded that half of the roughly 800,000 parents behind bars have a close relative who has previously been incarcerated.
With one dietary change, the U.S. could almost meet greenhouse-gas emission goals.
Ecoanxiety is an emerging condition. Named in 2011, the American Psychological Association recently described it as the dread and helplessness that come with “watching the slow and seemingly irrevocable impacts of climate change unfold, and worrying about the future for oneself, children, and later generations.”
It’s not a formal diagnosis. Anxiety is traditionally defined by an outsized stress response to a given stimulus. In this case, the stimulus is real, as are the deleterious effects of stress on the body.
This sort of disposition toward ecological-based distress does not pair well with a president who has denied the reality of the basis for this anxiety. Donald Trump has called climate change a fabrication on the part of “the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” He has also led the United States to become the only G20 country that will not honor the Paris Climate Accord, and who has appointed fossil-fuel advocates to lead the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency.
“The need to understand strange events like the Carnian Pluvial Episode has taken on new urgency."
In Italy, the dawn of the greatest empire in the history of the world is marked, not by broken marble pediments strewn across the seven hills of Rome, but modest three-toed footprints pressed into rocks far to the north, high in the Italian Alps. They were left by coastal dinosaurs patrolling the tidal flats of a tropical lagoon over 230 million years ago, and they’re among the earliest in Earth’s history. Perhaps more remarkable, though, than this sudden appearance of dinosaurs in ancient Europe, are the strange rocks which host them. The legendary reptile trackways appear just above crumbling bands of red clay that cut through the cream-colored peaks of the Dolomites—a striking dash in the strata that marks one of the most bizarre climate events ever.
Mohammed bin Salman was hailed as a reformer in Washington. Does anyone still think that after the brutal killing of Jamal Khashoggi?
Mohammed bin Salman’s vision for Saudi Arabia was impressive even before he became crown prince in June 2017.
In the West, he quickly became known for his support of women driving, the opening of movie theaters and comedy clubs, and his plan to diversify Saudi Arabia’s economy. Criticism about his alleged role in the brutal war in Yemen, the blockade of Qatar, and the effective kidnapping of Lebanon’s prime minister were brushed aside.
But the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist, has cast MbS, as he is known, in a different light: no longer the long-awaited reformer, but yet another authoritarian.
A report that the Trump administration plans to define gender based on the appearance of infants runs counter to developmental biology and individual privacy.
Life might be more orderly and easy to understand if biology worked just like this:
People come in one of two sexes, male or female. This is determined by chromosomes, and XX means female, and XY means male. Males have penises and testicles—which are all similar in appearance and curvature and size—that secrete testosterone in similar proportions. This testosterone is metabolized and functions similarly in all men and causes them to have similar amounts of musculature and deep voices and certain amounts of facial and back hair, and to act in particular ways due to this hormone. It causes their brains to develop and make them behave in ways that are “manly.”
These men are attracted to women, specifically women who look normal, which is a result of the fact that they definitionally have exactly and only two XX chromosomes that cause them to develop clitori and uteri and breasts and ovaries that produce estrogen and other hormones that cause cycles of growth and shedding of the uterine lining, and who predictably bear children when sperm meets egg. All of these features develop and function the same way in all women who are normal—whose amounts of hormones make their bodies look and feel more or less the same, and whose brains develop and function in a way that is female, and which consigns them to certain roles in social hierarchies.