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Chapter 2
I had titled my talk Genetic Precursors to Autism SpectrumDisorders and sourced some excellent diagrams of DNAstructures. I had only been speaking for nine minutes, a littlefaster than usual to recover time, when Julie interrupted.
‘Professor Tillman. Most of us here are not scientists, so youmay need to be a little less technical.’ This sort of thing isincredibly annoying. People can tell you the supposedcharacteristics of a Gemini or a Taurus and will spend fivedays watching a cricket match, but cannot find the interest orthe time to learn the basics of what they, as humans, aremade up of.
I continued with my presentation as I had prepared it. It wastoo late to change and surely some of the audience wereinformed enough to understand.
I was right. A hand went up, a male of about twelve.
‘You are saying that it is unlikely that there is a single geneticmarker, but rather that several genes are implicated and theaggregate expression depends on the specific combination.
Affirmative?’
16/290Exactly! ‘Plus environmental factors. The situation is analogousto bipolar disorder, which –’
Julie interrupted again. ‘So, for us non-geniuses, I thinkProfessor Tillman is reminding us that Asperger’s is somethingyou’re born with.
It’s nobody’s fault.’
I was horrified by the use of the word ‘fault’, with its negativecon-notations, especially as it was being employed by someonein authority. I abandoned my decision not to deviate from thegenetic issues.
The matter had doubtless been brewing in my subconscious,and the volume of my voice may have increased as a result.
‘Fault! Asperger’s isn’t a fault. It’s a variant. It’s potentially amajor advantage. Asperger’s syndrome is associated withorganisation, focus, innovative thinking and rational detachment.’
A woman at the rear of the room raised her hand. I wasfocused on the argument now, and made a minor social error,which I quickly corrected.
‘The fat woman – overweight woman – at the back?’
She paused and looked around the room, but then continued,‘Rational detachment: is that a euphemism for lack of emotion?’
‘Synonym,’ I replied. ‘Emotions can cause major problems.’
I decided it would be helpful to provide an example, drawingon a story in which emotional behaviour would have led todisastrous consequences.
‘Imagine,’ I said. ‘You’re hiding in a basement. The enemy issearching for you and your friends. Everyone has to keeptotally quiet, but your baby is crying.’ I did an impression, asGene would, to make the story more convincing: ‘Waaaaa.’ Ipaused dramatically. ‘You have a gun.’
Hands went up everywhere.
17/290Julie jumped to her feet as I continued. ‘With a silencer.
They’re coming closer. They’re going to kill you all. What doyou do? The baby’s screaming –’
The kids couldn’t wait to share their answer. One called out,‘Shoot the baby,’ and soon they were all shouting, ‘Shoot thebaby, shoot the baby.’
The boy who had asked the genetics question called out, ‘Shootthe enemy,’ and then another said, ‘Ambush them.’
The suggestions were coming rapidly.
‘Use the baby as bait.’
‘How many guns do we have?’
‘Cover its mouth.’
‘How long can it live without air?’
As I had expected, all the ideas came from the Asperger’s‘sufferers’.
The parents made no constructive suggestions; some even triedto suppress their children’s creativity.
I raised my hands. ‘Time’s up. Excellent work. All the rationalsolutions came from the aspies. Everyone else was incapacitatedby emotion.’
One boy called out, ‘Aspies rule!’ I had noted this abbreviationin the literature, but it appeared to be new to the children.
They seemed to like it, and soon were standing on the chairsand then the desks, punching the air and chanting ‘Aspiesrule!’ in chorus. According to my reading, children withAsperger’s syndrome frequently lack self-confidence in socialsituations. Their success in problem-solving seemed to haveprovided a temporary cure for this, but again their parentswere failing to provide positive feedback, shouting at them andin some cases attempting to pull them down from the desks.
Apparently they were more concerned with adherence to socialconvention than the progress their children were making.
18/290I felt I had made my point effectively, and Julie did not thinkwe needed to continue with the genetics. The parents appearedto be reflecting on what their children had learned and leftwithout interacting with me further. It was only 7.43 p.m. Anexcellent outcome.
As I packed up my laptop, Julie burst out laughing.
‘Oh my God,’ she said. ‘I need a drink.’
I was not sure why she was sharing this information withsomeone she had known for only forty-six minutes. I plannedto consume some alcohol myself when I arrived home but sawno reason to inform Julie.
She continued, ‘You know, we never use that word. Aspies. Wedon’t want them thinking it’s some sort of club.’ More negativeimplications from someone who was presumably paid to assistand encourage.
‘Like homosexuality?’ I said.
‘Touché,’ said Julie. ‘But it’s different. If they don’t change,they’re not going to have real relationships – they’ll never havepartners.’ This was a reasonable argument, and one that Icould understand, given my own difficulties in that sphere. ButJulie changed the subject. ‘But you’re saying there are things –useful things – they can do better than… non-aspies? Besides killing babies.’
‘Of course.’ I wondered why someone involved in the educationof people with uncommon attributes was not aware of thevalue of and market for such attributes. ‘There’s a company inDenmark that re-cruits aspies for computer applications testing.’
‘I didn’t know that,’ said Julie. ‘You’re really giving me adifferent perspective.’ She looked at me for a few moments.
‘Do you have time for a drink?’ And then she put her handon my shoulder.
I flinched automatically. Definitely inappropriate contact. If I haddone that to a woman there would almost certainly have beena problem, possibly a sexual harassment complaint to the Dean,which could have consequences for my career. Of course, noone was going to criticise her for it.
19/290‘Unfortunately, I have other activities scheduled.’
‘No flexibility?’
‘Definitely not.’ Having succeeded in recovering lost time, I wasnot about to throw my life into chaos again.
Before I met Gene and Claudia I had two other friends. Thefirst was my older sister. Although she was a mathematicsteacher, she had little interest in advances in the field. However,she lived nearby and would visit twice weekly and sometimesrandomly. We would eat together and discuss trivia, such asevents in the lives of our relatives and social interactions withour colleagues. Once a month, we drove to Shepparton forSunday dinner with our parents and brother. She was single,probably as a result of being shy and not conventionallyattractive.
Due to gross and inexcusable medical incompetence, she is nowdead.
The second friend was Daphne, whose friendship period alsoover-lapped with Gene and Claudia’s. She moved into theapartment above mine after her husband entered a nursinghome, as a result of demen-tia. Due to knee failure,exacerbated by obesity, she was unable to walk more than afew steps, but she was highly intelligent and I began to visither regularly. She had no formal qualifications, havingperformed a traditional female homemaker role. I consideredthis to be an extreme waste of talent – particularly as herdescendants did not return the care. She was curious aboutmy work, and we initiated the Teach Daphne Genetics Project,which was fascinating for both of us.
She began eating her dinner in my apartment on a regularbasis, as there are massive economies of scale in cooking onemeal for two people, rather than two separate meals. EachSunday at 3.00 p.m. we would visit her husband at thenursing home, which was 7.3 kilometres away. I was able tocombine a 14.6-kilometre walk pushing a wheelchair withinteresting conversation about genetics. I would read20/290while she spoke to her husband, whose level of comprehensionwas difficult to determine but definitely low.
Daphne had been named after the plant that was flowering atthe time of her birth, on the twenty-eighth of August. On eachbirthday, her husband would give her daphne flowers, and sheconsidered this a highly romantic action. She complained thather approaching birthday would be the first occasion in fifty-sixyears on which this symbolic act would not be performed. Thesolution was obvious, and when I wheeled her to myapartment for dinner on her seventy-eighth birthday, I hadpurchased a quantity of the flowers to give her.
She recognised the smell immediately and began crying. Ithought I had made a terrible error, but she explained that hertears were a symptom of happiness. She was also impressedby the chocolate cake that I had made, but not to the sameextent.
During the meal, she made an incredible statement: ‘Don, youwould make someone a wonderful husband.’
This was so contrary to my experiences of being rejected bywomen that I was temporarily stunned. Then I presented herwith the facts –the history of my attempts to find a partner, beginning withmy assumption as a child that I would grow up and getmarried and finishing with my abandonment of the idea as theevidence grew that I was unsuitable.
Her argument was simple: there’s someone for everyone.
Statistically, she was almost certainly correct. Unfortunately, theprobability that I would find such a person was vanishinglysmall. But it created a disturbance in my brain, like amathematical problem that we know must have a solution.
For her next two birthdays, we repeated the flower ritual. Theresults were not as dramatic as the first time, but I alsopurchased gifts for her – books on genetics – and she seemedvery happy. She told me that her birthday had always beenher favourite day of the year. I21/290understood that this view was common in children, due to thegifts, but had not expected it in an adult.
Ninety-three days after the third birthday dinner, we weretravelling to the nursing home, discussing a genetics paper thatDaphne had read the previous day, when it became apparentthat she had forgotten some significant points. It was not thefirst time in recent weeks that her memory had been faulty,and I immediately organised an assessment of her cognitivefunctioning. The diagnosis was Alzheimer’s disease.
Daphne’s intellectual capability deteriorated rapidly, and we weresoon unable to have our discussions about genetics. But wecontinued our meals and walks to the nursing home. Daphnenow spoke primarily about her past, focusing on her husbandand family, and I was able to form a generalised view of whatmarried life could be like. She continued to insist that I couldfind a compatible partner and enjoy the high level of happinessthat she had experienced in her own life. Supplementaryresearch confirmed that Daphne’s arguments were supported byevidence: married men are happier and live longer.
One day Daphne asked, ‘When will it be my birthday again?’
and I realised that she had lost track of dates. I decided that itwould be acceptable to lie in order to maximise her happiness.
The problem was to source some daphne out of season, but Ihad unexpected success. I was aware of a geneticist who wasworking on altering and extending the flowering of plants forcommercial reasons. He was able to supply my flower vendorwith some daphne, and we had a simulated birthday dinner. Irepeated the procedure each time Daphne asked about herbirthday.
Eventually, it was necessary for Daphne to join her husband atthe nursing home, and, as her memory failed, we celebratedher birthdays more often, until I was visiting her daily. Theflower vendor gave me a special loyalty card. I calculated thatDaphne had reached the age of22/290two hundred and seven, according to the number of birthdays,when she stopped recognising me, and three hundred andnineteen when she no longer responded to the daphne and Iabandoned the visits.
I did not expect to hear from Julie again. As usual, myassumptions about human behaviour were wrong. Two daysafter the lecture, at 3.37 p.m., my phone rang with anunfamiliar number. Julie left a message asking me to call back,and I deduced that I must have left something behind.
I was wrong again. She wanted to continue our discussion ofAsperger’s syndrome. I was pleased that my input had been soinfluential.
She suggested we meet over dinner, which was not the ideallocation for productive discussion, but, as I usually eat dinneralone, it would be easy to schedule. Background research wasanother matter.
‘What specific topics are you interested in?’
‘Oh,’ she said, ‘I thought we could just talk generally … get toknow each other a bit.’
This sounded unfocused. ‘I need at least a broad indication ofthe subject domain. What did I say that particularly interestedyou?’
‘Oh … I guess the stuff about the computer testers inDenmark.’
‘Computer applications testers.’ I would definitely need to dosome research. ‘What would you like to know?’
‘I was wondering how they found them. Most adults withAsperger’s syndrome don’t know they have it.’
It was a good point. Interviewing random applicants would bea highly inefficient way to detect a syndrome that has anestimated pre-valence of less than 0.3 per cent.
I ventured a guess. ‘I presume they use a questionnaire as apreliminary filter.’ I had not even finished the sentence when alight went on in my head – not literally, of course.
23/290A questionnaire! Such an obvious solution. A purpose-built,scientifically valid instrument incorporating current best practiceto filter out the time wasters, the disorganised, the ice-creamdiscriminators, the visual-harassment complainers, the crystalgazers, the horoscope readers, the fashion obsessives, thereligious fanatics, the vegans, the sports watchers, thecreationists, the smokers, the scientifically illiterate, thehomeopaths, leaving, ideally, the perfect partner, or, realistically,a manageable shortlist of candidates.
‘Don?’ It was Julie, still on the line. ‘When do you want to gettogether?’
Things had changed. Priorities had shifted.
‘It’s not possible,’ I said. ‘My schedule is full.’
I was going to need all available time for the new project.
The Wife Project.
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