Sunday, 26 September 2010

Am I a Neanderthal?

reconstruction of a Neanderthal woman
Is autism a family heirloom from Neanderthal ancestors?

The  Neanderthal theory of Autism, Aspergers and ADHD is a fascinating one.  Essentially, it looks at broad differences between autistic and non-autistic populations, and whether they might not echo differences between Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis communities.  For instance, there's a correlation between autism and having a larger than usual head.  And Neanderthals apparently had big heads too.  That, they argue, suggests that autistic traits might be echoes of Neanderthal genetics.

On an emotional level, I quite like the idea of being part Neanderthal. Not a freak or a mistake, but a throwback to an earlier age, something not less than but different from entirely human, something rather special and unique.

Of course, just liking something doesn't make it true.

For a start, after so many millions of years and countless generations of people travelling and cross-pollinating across the globe, those tiny bits of non-sapiens DNA are going to be ground so fine and spread so far that many, many people will have a dose.  Far too many for it to qualify as some sort of exclusive club.  A little bit of genetic material can go a long way - one in every 200 men alive today is a descendent of Gengis Khan.  And he was just one bloke, not an entire species.

Then there's this research.  It backs up the concept of early Homo sapiens interbreeding with not just Neanderthals but Homo heidelbergensis as well.  Basically, early man seems to have been the duck of the primate world.  But, as the report says, there's been so much mixing since that "there is a little bit of Neanderthal leftover in almost all humans."

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Black Dog

I've been carting Christobel Mattingley's picture book Black Dog around for about a quarter of a century, since I won it in a disability awareness poster competition. I was about six at the time, and my “entry” consisted of a painting of a person in a wheelchair out visiting friends, bearing a bunch of flowers bigger than their head. They were coming up the path towards their friends' house, and in what was probably interpreted as a deep social commentary rather than just a few random daubs of paint, the house had steps.

The painting was more what you'd expect from a toddler than a six year old, thanks to my slow development and motor skills issues – at the time, nobody had a clue I had a disability of my own.

In hindsight, the clues were all there. I didn't catch a ball or tie my shoelaces until I was about seven, or ride a bike 'til 10 or 11.  I misinterpreted the simplest instructions despite a deep desire to follow the rules and do the right thing, and normal playground interaction defeated me.  Yet nobody picked up on it.  Because like many Aspie girls I am quite gifted linguistically and reasonably able to mimic what I see others do, even if I don't understand exactly what we're doing let alone why we're doing it, it was generally assumed that I consciously chose to be different and difficult.

Once we had to draw a picture of a face depicting an emotion. Most of the other kids' were easy enough to work out – grotesquely huge grins for happy, enormous furrowed eyebrows for angry. Mine didn't even look like a face. I think there might have been a moustache above, instead of below, the nose.

There's something slightly ironic about both my entry and the prize. Both deal with friends, yet interpersonal relationships are my downfall.  My social skills are a lot better now than they used to be, but when I was a kid they really were a problem.  That created a barrier just as tangible and insurmountable as that posed to the wheelchair user by the steps on my painted house.

The prize was Black Dog by Christobel Mattingley. Nothing to do with depression, it's a children's book about a girl's first day at a new school. She loses herself metaphorically in the school library, when familiar characters offer a respite from a strange, unfamiliar place. But she also literally loses herself when the teacher apparently doesn't do a head-count before herding the kids back to class.  It's a book to give kids who have changed schools, or are going to, to show that while it might be scary there will be a happy ending involving a friendly dog and a game on the oval with your new friends.

The very last illustration in the book depicts that game, showing an assortment of children playing some hybrid of leapfrog, cricket, and cowboy-themed make-believe. There's one kid sitting in the background, facing away from the rest of the crowd at an odd angle. He's not looking at the other children or at anything else in particular, just sitting, staring. He looks out of place. The rest of the kids ignore him completely.

I can't help but feel that kid is me.

The First Letter

I don't often talk about having Aspergers. Not really talk about it properly; what it means, how it affects me, how I see the world. It's very difficult. Sometimes there simply aren't words.

I don't mean that in the pathetic "this is so terrible it's beyond the remit of the English language to express my grief" sense. I simply mean there are literally no words for some of the things an autistic person experiences.

Take, for example, what happens when I try - or am forced - to listen to two people speaking at once. The classic example is some impatient person demanding my attention when I'm already on the phone to someone else.

First, I immediately stop being able to understand any spoken language at all. It's as though both my phone correspondent and the person standing in front of me have suddenly started speaking an obscure Chinese dialect. It's complete gibberish. For someone who works with the spoken word for a living, and whose only real skill is words, this is terrifying.

If it goes on for more than a few minutes, the gibberish is replaced with white noise. Every aural input, from my conversation(s) to the traffic outside, music on the radio, everything, is replaced by the roar of static, the noise a radio makes in between stations. It's deafeningly loud regardless of the actual volume of my surroundings. I feel lightheaded and nauseous, and if it keeps up will make me physically sick.

This phenomenon is caused by real, physical, identified-by-science wiring problems in my brain. I simply do not process sensory input the way most people do.

Nobody has ever asked me how I experience the world. Some people have made some educated guesses, based on their knowledge of Aspergers in a general sense.  A few chose to believe that I'm making it up, or that I'll 'get over it'.  Or that because I'm not "visibly autistic" - whatever that means - I can't really have the problems I say I have.

This is not a hobby, not something I do for fun, or to prove a point, or because I think it makes me edgy or cool or special. I have a disability.

Much noise is made about early intervention for small children with autism.  This is a good thing. But Aspergers has only existed as a diagnosis since I was in middle high school.  I was not diagnosed until I was 26. I had no early intervention. I haven't even had late intervention, really.

And I am not alone. There are many, many undiagnosed Aspies out there.  A lot of them - us - probably don't even know that Aspergers is a thing, or that there could possibly be a them-shaped space on the autism spectrum.

I'm a success, I suppose.  But I can't help but think things could have been different had I understood the world a bit better.

Take school, for instance. Nobody explained to me that what you're actually supposed to learn as a child isn't the three times table and how to trace a map of Australia, but how to play with other children, how to not cry in public, how to become part of a group, how to start and continue a conversation. And because nobody considered that maybe I'd have trouble learning those things, nobody noticed that I didn't.  I'm learning now, but it's hard when everyone else has a 30-year head start.  But I'm learning.