P.L.A. - A Journal of Politics, Law and Autism

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Friday, May 02, 2003
 
Were Newton and Einstein On The Autism Spectrum?

CNN and the Herald are reporting that Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, the inventors of the theories of gravity and relativity, respectively, may have been on the autism spectrum.

CNN reports:
Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton were geniuses but British scientists believe they may have suffered from Asperger syndrome -- a form of autism.

The condition, first described by Viennese physician Hans Asperger in 1944, is a disorder that causes deficiencies in social and communication skills and obsessive interests.

But it does not affect learning or intellect and many people with AS have exceptional talents or skills.

Although it is impossible to make a definitive diagnosis in people who are dead, Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge University and Loan James of Oxford University studied the personalities of Einstein and Newton to see if the two scientists had symptoms of AS.
"Newton seems a classic case. He hardly spoke, was so engrossed in his work that he often forgot to eat, and was lukewarm or bad-tempered with the few friends he had," New Scientist magazine said on Wednesday.

Baron-Cohen said Einstein was also a loner and as a child he repeated sentences obsessively. Although Einstein made friends and spoke out on political issues, Baron-Cohen suspects he showed signs of Asperger syndrome.

The point that the diagnosis is less than definitive should be emphasized. The only means of diagnosing Asperger’s Syndrome or any form of autism is by direct observation of the behavior of the subject. There is no blood test, CAT scan or genetic test to determine if a person is on the spectrum. If a person consistently exhibits a certain number of specific behaviors, then he or she (80% of the time, it is "he") is said to be autistic.

As the British researchers had no opportunity to observe the behaviors of Newton or Einstein, the diagnosis is speculative. It is interesting speculation but it remains merely speculation.

On one level, I am always pleased to read news reports that put autism in a favorable light. Any information that increases public awareness of autism and increases the public’s understanding of autistic behavior is good.

We have often had the experience of having to explain our son’s behavior to strangers. We have to explain why our son will not play with other children at the playground. We have to explain why he does not speak. Most importantly, we have to explain that autism is not contagious. News stories, films and other information that imparts a basic understanding of autism to the public are helpful.

People react to autisic behavior out of fear and ignorance. A few mothers have gathered up their kids at the playground and left so as to avoid having their kids in close proximity to Bobby. One lady, upon witnessing a behavioral meltdown at the grocery store, remarked that “that boy’s parents need to learn to discipline their child.” “You are right”, I replied. “About 48 hours under your care would straighten him right up. When should I drop him off?”

The good thing about ignorance is that it is cured by knowledge. News stories, books and movies about autism help spread the knowledge and cure the ignorance.

Unfortunately but inevitably, most popular treatments of autism focus on the very small number of autistics who are savants. Raymond in Rainman is able to memorize half the phone book in a single night, can count a six-deck blackjack shoe flawlessly and has memorized the schedules and starting pitchers for major league baseball teams. In Mercury Rising, Simon, a little autistic boy can, at a glance, break the military’s most sophisticated code.

There are a few autistic people who can instantly tell you the cube root of the square of your telephone number. The autistic savants, however, are a small percentage of autistics. The more typical autistic behaviors do not provide good box office.

For instance, our most recent success is in the area of tooth brushing. Not many movies are made about tooth brushing. For years Bobby has vigorously resisted any efforts to brush his teeth. Any semblance of oral hygiene was only accomplished through the simple fact that, for now, my wife and I are stronger than Bobby.

After years of effort and training, Bobby and I have reached a negotiated settlement on the tooth brushing issue. He will permit me to brush his teeth once a day if, but only if, I 1) brush them immediately after his nightly bath, 2) using a “Harry Potter” toothbrush formerly owned by his brother, 3) using Pepsodent Original (Bobby is quite happy to eat tubes of other brands but brushing with other brands is out of the question), 4) he sits on a towel draped over my left knee, and 5) a yellow plastic Dixie Cup is available for rinsing.

We are quite pleased with the deal. I fully expect Tom Cruise to play me in the movie. The sequel will be about what happens when the Harry Potter toothbrush finally wears out.


Wednesday, April 30, 2003
 
A Warm Welcome


Please extend a warm welcome to John Dallas. John is the Pastor of University Heights United Methodist Church here in the Atlanta area. We look forward to reading John's views on a variety of subjects.



Tuesday, April 29, 2003
 
Coach of the Year

Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs was named NBA Coach of the year yesterday. While Popovich certainly did a fine job while coaching the Spurs to the NBA’s best record, we think that Maurice Cheeks of the Portland Trailblazers should have won the award.

Cheeks coached Portland into the playoffs with a 50-32 record, sixth best in the league. That is a remarkable record considering the type of people Cheeks is forced to coach. For instance, their best player and power forward, Rasheed Wallace was suspended for threatening a referee and was cited for drug possession. Point guard Damon Stoudemire was arrested on drug charges. Shooting guard Bonzi Wells was suspended for brawling with fans. Forward Ruben Patterson has been charged with assault for hitting his wife and is a registered sex offender after entering a plea in which he acknowledged that there was sufficient evidence to convict him of rape.

To win 50 games and make the playoffs with that team is quite an accomplishment but that is not the reason we support Cheeks for Coach of the Year. Our reason has nothing to do with Xs or Os, wins or losses, or the pick and roll. It has to do with a 13 year-old girl desperately in need of a coach.

Portland is playing Dallas in the playoffs. They lost the first three games of the best of seven series and were on the verge of elimination in game four at the Rose Garden in Portland. Natalie Gilbert, a thirteen-year old eighth grader was chosen to sing the national anthem before that game.

Gilbert moved onto center stage to sing the Star Spangled Banner in front of the sold out crowd of 20,000 and simply froze. It is an experience that all of us who speak or perform in front of other people have experienced or feared. According to one report:
There she stood at center court, this little girl with the big, big voice, poised for the moment of a lifetime, the house lights dimmed, 20,000 people waiting expectantly for her, 20,000 people ready to hear her sing . . .

. . . and the words wouldn't come.

They lodged in her throat and couldn't be budged, no matter how mightily she strained. It was the song she knew by heart, the one she had heard a million times, the one she had sung over and over and over, the very one that she had rehearsed in a dressing room perfectly - every single run-through dead solid perfect - only minutes before, for heaven's sake. But now the words all tumbled over each other, crazy-quilted in a jumbling, confusing mish-mash...

She wanted to disappear, of course. She wanted the floor to open up and swallow her. Or a spaceship to beam her up and carry her off. Natalie Gilbert, a 13-year-old eighth grader, was living the nightmare each of us, in moments of morbid, fearful imagining, has conjured.

Like a basketball team suffering a rash of turnovers, Natalie Gilbert needed a coach to help her get back on track. Fortunately, there was a coach in the house. The story continues:
And then, suddenly, silent as a shadow, he was there, standing beside her, his left arm protectively, comfortingly around her, and he was whispering the forgotten words and she began to nod her head - "yes, yes, I remember now - and she began to mouth the words, and then he started to sing them, softly, and she joined in, hesitantly at first, but with a growing confidence, and soon they were a duet, and he was urging the crowd on with his right hand, and soon the duet had 20,000 back-ups, 20,000 people singing partly out of relief, partly out of compassion, partly out of pride, and rarely has the national anthem of the United States of America been rendered with such heartfelt gusto.

It was a glorious, redemptive moment.

He, of course, is Mo Cheeks.
"I don't know why I did it," he said. "It wasn't something I thought about. It's one of those things you just do."

Except, of course, no one else thought to do it.

Everybody else did precisely what most of us would do in such a situation - study the ceiling, develop a sudden interest in our shoes, shift from side to side, paralyzed, frozen to the spot, embarrassed for the little girl, empathizing furiously, wishing desperately it would all end: "Please, let her remember the words. Please. Somebody do something.''

Maurice Cheeks, himself a father, did what all fathers, and grandfathers, too, in moments of heroic reverie, dream they would do. He tried to make the world go away.

Seeing as how his team was one loss away from elimination, he might have been expected to have other things on his mind than a junior high school girl who had won a contest to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" before tip-off of the most crucial game of the year.

And yet, there he was, not sure how exactly, walking to center court. And once there, this thought stabbed him:

"I wasn't sure whether I knew the words myself," he said, laughing.

"I just didn't want her to be out there all alone."

The essence of coaching is to help players overcome difficult situations and perform at the peak of their ability. As Natalie Gilbert finished the anthem, she turned with a huge smile toward her coach and said simply “Thank you.”

We have never seen a better job of coaching. Maurice Cheeks should be coach of the year.