Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Let's talk about Autism

Lately, I've noticed many people - many of them parents who want to speak up for their children and help to increase public awareness and tolerance - tweeting about autism on Twitter. I decided to write a post about this wide-spread phenomenon. Since a member of my family has been diagnosed with high-functioning autism a few years ago, I have some personal experience in the matter and just wanted to tell you my thoughts about it, although I'll leave the medical facts to the professionals.

The number of new autism diagnoses has been dramatically increasing in recent years, but not in countries of the so-called Third World. It is speculated that this epidemic increase could be linked to vaccines, which makes sense to me but hasn't been proved so far. However, in the USA about 15% of all children between 3 and 17 years are diagnosed with a developmental disorder, such as ASD and ADHD. About one in every 110 children and even one in 70 boys is said to be affected by ASD.

So there's no doubt that we should start to deal with it. It could happen to anyone, so first of all, all parents should be well informed and able to see the signs. The earlier an autistic child begins a special therapy, the better are his chances to improve. These early signs include:

  • not smiling by six months of age
  • not babbling, pointing or using other gestures by 12 months
  • not using single words by age 16 months
  • not using two word phrases by 24 months
  • having a regression in development, with any loss of language or social skills

(For further information, read here.)

At the beginning of the last century, a physician would encounter one or two cases in his whole life; nowadays pediatricians deal with autistic children on an almost daily basis. The correct name, by the way, isn't autism but ADS (Autism Spectrum Disorder). "Spectrum" means that there is a wide range of symptoms. The children can develop very differently, and not all of them will look and act like characters from movies like "Rain Man", or "Mercury Rising ". Often script writers choose Aspergers syndrome as an example of autism, but it's just one of the high-functioning forms of ASD. Actually, many autistic kids wouldn't even appear as "strange" to you if you met them on the street.

Some of these children don't start to talk before the age of two, and others never speak a word. Some of them might be geniuses in their professions later as adults, but won't be able to understand simple non-verbal communication or subtle signals, like a warning look or a comforting hand on the shoulder. Despite being able to solve the most complex mathematical equations, they might be helpless about what to do next when their usual train doesn't show up on time.

Many of these special kids will avoid eye contact, but others will smile at you and look into your eyes like any other child. They will struggle to have friends to play with, while not knowing how to play with other kids, or what to say to them to develop a connection. Some of them will show strange moves of their heads or hands, jumping up and down, fluttering their arms like excited little birds when they are happy.

Some of them will throw immense tantrums in public, especially while waiting in lines, which will cause their desperate parents many judging comments or critical glances by unknowing people. Some of them will cry when their "normal" siblings are invited to childrens' birthday parties and they are not because they are always noisy and unable to sit still at a table.

A common opinion about persons with ASD is that they don't feel, or that they are indifferent to other people. This couldn't be further from the truth. Inside, they yearn to have friends, or to be part of a group of individuals. They don't enjoy being alone - it's just what they are best at and where they don't have to deal with frustration by being rejected all the time.

They are not mentally retarded. Their brain is simply functioning differently, so they are often unable to understand emotional signals and don't know how to react to them as they should. For parents, therapists and teachers, it's an incredibly exhausting task to show their children how to find their way in life. Many of them have to be taught everything from the start, they don't even learn to dress or wash their hands by themselves because they lack the ability to imitate adults as other children do. What's worse, kindergartens and schools are often not enabled to deal with these children. Specially educated teachers and small play groups/classes are required to help them develop.

I know that money is scarce these days but if you'd like to donate, organisations that help families with autistic children like Autism Speaks would be a good place to go. The site also offers great information about ASD and great advice to parents.

But even without money, you can help. The better you are informed, the better you can see the signs. And the next time you notice a child throwing a terrible, noisy tantrum in the middle of the supermarket, instead of thinking "what a brat", you might talk to the parents to see if they need any help. If they are willing to talk, you could even ask them if the kid might be suffering from a developmental disorder like ADS or ADHD. I know this sounds somewhat impolite, but I bet they'll be happy to share their story with you. And if they do, they will be very thankful that finally someone doesn't judge - but asks.

Yours truly,
Deborah Court

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Why Women fall in Love with Sherlock Holmes

If any of you have watched the new BBC series, "Sherlock" (in the US, it's available on PBS Masterpiece), you probably have noticed Benedict Cumberbatch, the outstanding elven-faced British actor playing the consulting detective. Since the launch of the show which has, by the way, the most superb writing I've ever seen on TV, many female viewers have found themselves "Cumberbatched" - compelled by the new Holmes's dark chocolate voice and passionate, incredibly dedicated performance. Sherlock declares himself as unwilling to share any human emotions, since they would affect his highly efficient brain. I wouldn't go so far as to say that he's asexual, but he knows how to control his most primal urges, having dedicated his life to solving crimes and bringing criminals to justice.

Now have a look at Dr. Watson, Sherlock's faithful, supportive friend and flatmate at London's most famous address, 221B Baker Street. Martin Freeman brilliantly, perfectly plays him just as Doyle wrote this character - not an elderly doctor, like in the movies, but thirtysomething, intelligent, educated, brave and adventurous. Sherlock would be a boring story if we didn't see the detective mastermind's actions through Watson's eyes.

Watson - nowadays known as "John" since Holmes and Watson call each other by their given name - is a man of honor and integrity, and most of all, a romantic (as was his creator and secret impersonation, Doyle). Wouldn't he be the perfect guy to fall in love with? He's ready to give his heart to the right woman, he's faithful, intelligent (although no genius like Sherlock), brave and adventurous. You could totally imagine him doing the dishes and playing with his kids, a true family man (in Arthur Conan Doyle's original canon he marries, actually), not something one could say about Sherlock, who's a high-functioning sociopath, as he admits himself in the TV series.

But Sherlock is the one who "flicks our Bic", to quote Charlaine Harris. It has always been this way, with every actor who played Holmes, Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett probably the most notable among many others. I am quite sure some of them were surprised about the passionate reaction they evoked in their female viewers. But why do we find the detective so sexy when he clearly doesn't need our companionship?

If we were 14-year-old fan girls, a psychologist would say that we felt attracted to Sherlock because he doesn't threaten us with overly aggressive male sexuality (you can also apply this assumption to feminine-looking boyband members who are adored by teenage girls). Since we are adult women, however, we don't raise objections against a bit of sexual forwardness by a man whose attention we crave. So what is it that turns us on about a man who clearly denies his sexual side?

Exclusiveness, and the need to feel special. We want to be the only woman who manages to lure the detective out of his shell. We want to be Irene Adler, the near-genius female adventuress who is actually called "The Woman" by the intrigued Sherlock. Is it too foolish to imagine the wild, passionate beast we'll unleash behind the detective's cool demeanor once we managed to seduce him?

Well, a girl can always dream - even if we end up marrying the good Dr Watson and living happily ever after with him instead. Who knows, maybe there's a wild beast hidden in him, as well?

Yours truly,
Deborah Court

@All characters and pictures are the property of Arthur Conan Doyle, BBC and PBS Masterpiece. No copyright infringement is intended. No monetary compensation is gained. Used for entertainment purposes only.