Thursday, 28 August 2014

Far From the Tree

I am reading the most fascinating book right now.  It might hurt my wrists to hold it upright (it's that heavy!) but I'm devouring each and every page with a hunger I didn't know was in me.

Far From the Tree (Andrew Solomon) is subtitled "Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity."  With years of meticulous and varied research, Solomon has tracked families that are affected by ten different challenges: deaf, dwarfs, Down Syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, multiple severe disabilities, prodigies, rape, crime, transgender.  The book opens with a chapter called "Son" and closes with a chapter called "Father." The nucleus of the book is that the old expression "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree" is commonly-known; what happens when your child has a condition so foreign to you that he seems to have fallen "far from the tree?" If you have had the fortune of spending an hour or two with me on a lazy day, I've probably chewed your ear off about his theories on identity.  While I may not agree with anything, my brain cannot help but be pushed by his thoughts.

I'm currently on the third chapter, autism. With the growing number of diagnoses of autism, one can't help but be touched by it.  I corresponded online with a young mother who has three boys and a girl, all exactly the same ages as mine.  We also both miscarried within weeks of each other.  We first became acquainted when she only had a two year old boy and a baby.  I watched as all three of her boys were eventually diagnosed on the autism spectrum.  I also have an old friend from high school who I convinced of the merits of our town and who moved here from the city a few years back.  I vividly recall the mom and baby class we were in together as she tentatively expressed concern about her son's development. I feel a degree of guilt and shame that I brushed it off so casually, as so many people and doctors do.  Her son has since been diagnosed with autism and this mother has become the greatest advocate for her child I have ever seen.

What is most fascinating for me, about autism, is the idea that it is a spectrum disorder, that "fades into normality at one end." In other words, we may not recognize autism until it is a certain way down that road.  There are those of us that function fairly well in society that may have the same genetic mutations (or other cause of autistic tendencies; the cause of autism is completely undetermined as of yet.)

As I have read and heard and seen autism in play, I have often felt an underlying connection, in a very small degree.  One of the key indicators of autism is the inability to function in social relationships or understand social cues.  I often find that I misread or misunderstand tone (it's a common issue that comes up frequently between James and I; he is overly attuned to tone, whereas I rarely hear past the actual words people are using.)  Lately, in the comforts of my own home, I have allowed myself the grace to ask for clarification from James: "Did you mean that or did I miss a level of tone?" The question is genuine, though probably some might find it ridiculous or even condescending.

I also have anxiety in social situations when I am not talking about a subject in depth.  People might say that social anxiety is common enough.  That's fine, but is it perhaps a mild version of what autistic people are experiencing?

I struggle with empathy.  I understand what it is and when it should be felt, but I am often discouraged when I don't find it naturally rising up.  I find myself saying "Here, you should feel sorry about this. This is a time for empathy."  I find myself mimicking the state rather than experiencing it.

My mind tends to process things systematically instead of emotionally. I find it hard to understand when people lash out or let emotions take over when a clear, logical dissection of an issue would likely result in a solution. Again, not uncommon, but perhaps it is the result of a small genetic mutation that, when taken to the extreme, leads to autistic behaviour?

I am no scientist, but I am fascinated with this idea of a spectrum that fades right into normality.  I wonder if the key to unlocking the mysteries of autism lie within those of us whose aberrations are so subtle they would only be thought of as quirks.  Might the comparison of our genetic maps to autistic ones finally reveal some commonality?

These are my ow musings.  If you read non-fiction, I highly recommend this book.  I cannot recall more clear and engaging writing in the genre.  And you might find, like the author did, that diversity is actually what unites us all.

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