Sunday, April 20, 2008

April is Autism Awareness Month

April is Autism Awareness Month. There are three things about autism that most people probably are not aware of.

First is its prevalence. The latest estimate is that 1 in 150 people in the USA have been diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), which is also known as Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD).

If you're in the fields of engineering, computer science, physics or math, the chances are even higher that you, your children, your coworkers or their children could be diagnosed with this disorder. And you should check out, which is dedicated to the early identification and treatment of children with developmental delays and disorders, including Autism Spectrum Disorders.

The second thing to be aware of is knowing what autism is. The diagnostic criteria for ASD in children concern development and ability in the areas of social interaction, communication and play. Please see "Diagnosis and Epidemiology of Autism Spectrum Disorders," by Lee Tidmarsh, MD, Fred R Volkmar, MD. The misconception is that all autistic children are non-verbal and catatonic. That may be true of children who are on the low end of the spectrum. But those with either "high-functioning autism" or Asperger Syndrome can be very verbal, especially when they're talking about their "special interest," such as locomotives. They are usually of average or above-average intelligence, and they sometimes come across as "little professors."

The third thing to be aware of regarding autism is that there are effective treatments. Early detection of an ASD is crucial because when interventions are tried at an early age (say at 3 to 5 years of age), they are even more effective than when tried later on.

I should point out that most of those who have an ASD and who can communicate say that they don't want to be cured; they just want to be accepted. Thus, it's not they who have the problem, it is society. Nevertheless, interventions can make things easier for children and the autistic adults they grow in to.

What kinds of interventions can reduce the symptoms of an ASD? A change in diet -- avoiding wheat and dairy products (the Gluten-Free Caisen-Free GFCF diet), for example, or avoiding chemical additives (the Feingold diet) -- can help. (The GFCF diet helps those with Leaky Gut Syndrome, which can manifest as symptoms of ASD.) Another effective, diet-related approach is supplementation with mega doses of vitamin B6, or its active co-enzyme, P5P. Play therapy or Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) has been proven to help. In some cases, mercury detoxification may help. There are many more interventions for a parent to choose from. Then there are interventions aimed at easing the secondary symptoms that accompany ASD such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Depression.

Scientists can spend entire careers looking for signs of intelligent life in the Universe. Meanwhile, medical researchers have overlooked signs of intelligence in people with autism. They assume that people who can't talk and who respond differently to stimuli must be lacking in intelligence.

If you don't believe me, consider the amazing website, Getting the Truth Out, which was originally written in response to an objectionable Autism Awareness fundraising campaign called "Getting the Word Out." Be sure to follow the presentation completely to the end -- it may take about 45 minutes to get through it all.

If you suspect that you or a loved one is struggling with an ASD, visit the Online Asperger Syndrome Information & Support (OASIS). (Asperger Syndrome is an ASD, and is sometimes referred to as High-Functioning Autism.) As its name suggests, you can get a great deal of information from the site. You can find most of the support by clicking on the Message Boards menu choice and registering for the "OASIS: Asperger Syndrome Forum".

When most people know the facts about autism, policymakers can no longer ignore the issue. Lawmakers can force health insurance providers to cover the costs of treatments. More money could be made available to schools to fund better special education programs and to keep up with "No Child Left Behind" mandates. And parents and caregivers can have children evaluated earlier.

Follow the links. Do the research. Spread the word.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

High School Art Classes and Maturation of Seeing

I helped clean out my mother's house last Saturday and found my old art portfolios.

I took art in grades nine and ten. As a grade nine elective, art was one of three choices, the other two being shop (a noisy dirty class for jocks and bullies) and home economics (for girls). Being neither a jock, bully or girl, I chose art. Besides, I figured I'd really like drawing -- I used to enjoy it as a child.

My ninth grade art class was the last one of the day. It was a great way to wind down. I really became absorbed in the work and found solace and escape. (This was Junior High School, after all.) I focused a lot on detail -- bricks in the wall of a building, the bark on a tree, etc. I enjoyed the media of pencil and pen and ink best.

I managed to produce some impressive things and got consistently high grades. One piece won honorable Mention at a local art gallery in a student contest. It was a (partly abstract) pen and ink drawing of a train station.

I dropped art after tenth grade. One reason was that it was the first class of the day. I'm sorry, but art should not be done at 8:00am. Another was that I had classmates that were much better than me. (The classmates were in grades ten, eleven and twelve.) I remember one guy who could draw amazing fantasy creatures. And yet another reason was that this class was such drudgery. In looking through the work, I remember the assignment where I had to turn in four sketches of my hand in one week. There was also some art history that I was expected learn and write essays about! [shudder]

The main point of this post is that I realize now that I could not really see back then. It wasn't until I bought "Drawing on the Right Side of Brain" several years later that I learned how I should visually perceive my environment. Not that I actually could visually perceive my environment, mind you.

And now it's fifteen years later. I'm finally trying to look carefully at what's around me instead of walking about in a fog, ruminating on past conversations and events. I no longer arrive at work, not remembering the drive. I don't very often walk into a room forgetting what I it was I went in it for. I'm almost becoming lucid just like I used to in my dreams years ago.

Seeing seems so simple. But it's not, at least not for me. In fact, there are many things that seem so simple, and yet we don't do them well. Breathing, eating, hygiene -- these autonomous activities suffer from lack of concentration. We eat without paying much attention to the taste and texture of the food, let alone how the food can replenish us. Our breathing becomes more and more shallow as stress weighs upon us. We brush our teeth mindlessly, hoping to get it done quickly, utterly failing to imagine them clean, strong and healthy.

When you see, really look at the scene in front of you. Take in the detail of the tree branches, the iridescence of bird feathers, the diamond-like sparkle of dew on the morning lawn. Be present in the moment. Treat the present as the gift that it is. See it. Feel it. Be it.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

April Fools Celebration

One of the most under-rated holidays is April Fools Day.

I fooled my daughter and my wife real good in the morning.

My wife had just left the kitchen to start her bathroom routine when my daughter walked in, a bit bleary and incoherent. The radio was on, so I said to her, "I just heard on the radio that school's canceled! Let's tell mommy!"

"But it's not snowing?"

"No, but the boiler broke!"

So we rush over to the bathroom. And you know the worst thing you can tell a mom in the morning before school is that the school is closed unexpectedly, and she has to babysit a child all day instead of cruising over to Starbucks and getting a seasonal latte before embarking on a massive grocery shopping trip.

"Hey, I just heard on the radio that school's closed! The boiler's broken!"

"Oh no!"

It was great because I had already convinced my daughter, and she helped me feed the line to my wife. Hehe. Otherwise, my daughter is a bad practical joker -- she has no poker face whatsoever. I think that's what made it so convincing.

So I was on high alert when I got back home after a day at work. And that's exactly why I like this day so much. It forces you to pay attention -- the ideal state for someone who studies meditation (or needs to).

If you've ever watched one of the Pink Panther movies that Peter Sellers starred in, you know what this is like. In the story line Inspect Clouseau has given his house boy, Cato Fong, instructions to attack him by surprise at any time. The inspector hopes this will keep him vigilant. (Here's an image from the scene in which Cato attacks the inspector from within the refrigerator.)

Usually when I get home, my wife and daughter are in the middle of supper, and stuff is on the stove, oven or in a plate to be warmed up for me. (Nice service, eh?) This April Fools Day was suspiciously no different.

Well, the plate was there, covered with wax paper, ready to go into the microwave oven. I cautiously lifted the paper to reveal.... food. Well, okay, a few years ago, there were hairy cat toys on the plate!

I decided to wash my hands before heating the plate. I went to dry them on the kitchen towel, and it was krinkly. There was tape on the inside of it!

So I brought the plate over to the microwave oven, opened it and -- uuuugh -- it was filled with stuffed animals!

There was soup in a pot on the stove, but when I lifted the lid I saw stuffed animals!

I found two banana slices in my green salad!

Before bedtime, I decided to use the bathroom. I lifted the toilet lid and saw a Sponge Bob Square Pants plushie taped underneath!

So it was a really fun day. I enjoyed the pranks. But I especially liked being forced to pay attention.

And if you want to try a really good meditation, do the Cato / Clouseau meditation. Get a house mate or coworker to surprise you frequently throughout the day!