Friday, March 30, 2012

Autism epidemic -- or a bunch of EQ normies in a panic?

A recent study by the CDC now indicates that 1 in 88 American children has autism -- a 20% increase in the past two years.   Some of this increase is no doubt due to better diagnosis.  The CDC study does note that autism seems to be more prevalent in U.S. states with better medical care, and that autism prevalence is also higher in areas where doctors are better at diagnosing autism in kids with relatively high intellectual ability.

But  I find myself wondering if there might also be another reason.   Is it only coincidence that the apparent rise in autism over the past couple decades parallels the social shift from valuing IQ to stressing EQ -- Emotional Quotient?  It's not what you know anymore, it's how well you can  function in a group.  So -- are high-functioning kids who prefer doing loner projects getting labeled as autistic now, because they do not fit the EQ team-oriented needs of the corporate social environment they are being groomed to fit into?

This is not the first time that changes in society's expectations have affected how we define what is "normal."  In a 1975 essay called "Thinking about Thinking," Isaac Asimov wrote:  "It used to be Latin that was the mark of intelligence, and now it is science. I am the beneficiary. I know no Latin except for what my flypaper mind has managed to pick up accidentally -- so without changing a single brain cell, I would be dumb in 1775 and terribly smart in 1975." The point being, that “intelligence” is often defined by what a culture values. 

Today's culture, it seems, values meaningless chit-chat and boring, drivel-filled texting over in-depth discussions (which you can't even post directly on Facebook or Twitter, you have to blog it somewhere else and then do a link.)   This EQ trend could be why the US education system is failing.  Last time I looked at a chart, we were 48th in science worldwide.  If we no longer value intellectual subjects, then of course our children won't bother studying them.

My own IQ is quite high by current testing standards. I said my first word at nine months of age, could read before I got to kindergarten, and by fifth grade was devouring college-level biology books. (My father was always deeply disappointed that I did not become a scientist.) I can think, analyze, do library research, and comprehend complex theories. By that measure, I'm a genius. 

But in recent years, with the rise of the EQ movement's focus on socializing rather than analyzing, I am rapidly losing my niche, because in addition to a high IQ, I also have Asperger's Syndrome.  Which means, among other things, that I give poor eye contact, don't socialize very well, prefer to work alone, and really hate team sports.  Every EQ self-test I've ever taken, I have flunked royally.  So, without changing a single brain cell, the EQ movement has rendered me a complete idiot. Which only goes to prove Asimov's point: intelligence and learning are relative concepts.

This is not to say I had no social problems when I was a kid.  Like a lot of Aspies, I was teased and bullied for being an "egghead," which was what people back then called a nerd.  But significantly, I had fewer problems related to my (then undiagnosed) autism when I lived on the East Coast than I do now living here in the land of "Minnesota Nice."  (I once got reprimanded by a Minnesota boss for banging my fist on the table -- once -- to make a point during a heated conference discussion.  Ironically, that same week, President Clinton did the same thing at the podium on national TV -- and nobody saw him as "threatening" for doing it.) 

Scientists are looking for genetic and environmental factors like chemicals and pollution as causes for autism, but once again I must ask: What about social expectations? Are autistic behaviors more acceptable in some cultures than others?  For example, I function very well in the Orthodox Jewish community, where things are highly structured and ritualized.  When I visit a Hasidic home, I know exactly what is expected of me at the Sabbath table, and if, after dinner, I bury my nose in a book instead of chatting, people praise that behavior as "always studying Torah."  In addition, eye contact is not as important among Hasidim, and between the sexes it is considered downright rude (as is also true in many Native American Indian communities.)

On the other end of the spectrum,  I can remember sitting across the table from a non-Jewish social worker who stared at me constantly, to the point that I began to feel as if we were two dogs squaring off for a fight.  I find myself wondering if phrases like "he wouldn't look me in the eye" have contributed to the negative stereotype of Jews as dishonest.  It certainly contributes to mis-reading autistic people.  If I had a dollar for every time I was asked, "Why do you always look at the ceiling?" I would be a millionaire. 
Don't get me wrong:  I'm not against giving kids help that they actually need.  I certainly could have used some coaching in how to read facial expressions and pick up on subtle nonverbal cues.  But what would be the purpose in forcing me to make eye contact when it makes me so uncomfortable?  Wouldn't it be better to simply accept that even though I'm not looking you directly in the eye, that doesn't mean I'm not paying attention?  If I prefer working alone, why not train me for a job where I can do that successfully, instead of insisting that I learn how to function on a committee?  In other words, why not focus on what I can do rather than what I can't?

Before society goes off on a crusade to make everybody fit the EQ mold, perhaps we should consider what Temple Grandin, the best-selling author and animal scientist who is also autistic, wrote in her book, Thinking in Pictures: “After all, the really social people did not invent the first stone spear. It was probably invented by an Aspie who chipped away at rocks while the other people socialized around the campfire. Without autism traits we might still be living in caves.”
We Aspies might not mix very well, but we can often be highly focused innovators. I would have been the guy chipping rocks.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Rabbi in a Hoodie: I know what it's like to be stereotyped

My heart goes out to the family of 17-year-old Treyvon Martin, who was gunned down while walking home from the store in a hooded sweatshirt -- which apparently caused self-appointed neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman in a gated neighborhood to see him as "very suspicious" and possibly on drugs.  And did I mention that Treyvon was black?  Never mind that it was raining and he probably put his hood up to keep dry.  That combination of factors -- young black guy at night in a hoodie -- somehow made Zimmerman "fear for his life" even though Martin was unarmed.   Reports of what happened are conflicting at this point, but one thing is clear: the 911 operator told Zimmerman not to follow or confront Treyvon and he did so anyway.   So who was really threatening whom?

Rabbi Gershom in a hoodie

One has to ask -- as protesters across the nation are doing -- whether Zimmerman's fear was based on any kind of reality or a stereotype in Zimmerman's head.  In solidarity with those protests, I post this pic of myself in a hoodie -- one that I wear all the time while doing outdoor chores here in northern Minnesota. 

Now, as an old white guy, I can't claim to know what it is like to be a black youth in America.  But I do know what it is like to be stereotyped.   When I'm not wearing a hoodie, I usually wear a large knitted yarmulke (skullcap).  That, along with my full untrimmed beard, makes me look like a "terrorist" to some people.  There are also those here in rural Minnesota who do not know what payos (Orthodox sidecurls) are, and see them as something effeminate.  So it's hard to tell sometimes if I am being profiled as a Muslim or a gay male.  Or, for that matter, maybe they do know I'm a Jew and don't like me for that. 

What I know for sure is that ever since 9/11, if I travel outside my local area where I am a familiar sight, I find myself being followed by security people in stores, stared at by strangers on the street, or trailed through small towns by police cars.  I have also been pulled over by cops for things like a burned out tail light a whole lot more often than ever happened before 9/11.   I haven't had any occasion to fly lately, but I have no doubt that I'd be seen as suspicious.  Would I be kicked off the flight -- or worse -- because some passenger "felt uncomfortable" with me on board?

Geraldo Rivera wants to blame the death on the hoodie implying that if Treyvon had not been wearing one outside his own neighborhood, the whole thing would never have happened.   Does this mean I should never "look Jewish" outside of an Orthodox Jewish community?  Does it mean that if I get harrassed, it's my own fault for wearing a yarmulke in public and looking like someone's idea of a terrorist?

In fact, I do admit that there have been times when I have tied my payos at the back of my neck like a ponytail and worn a stocking cap or a baseball cap -- precisely because I did not want to be bothered with stares at some public event.  As a white Jewish guy, it is relatively easy for me to pass as a gentile.   But a black guy can't change his skin color.  About the only thing we can both hope to do is change people's attitudes.  We all need to take a long hard look at how we treat each other. 

The commandment "do not oppress a stranger" occurs, in one form or another, more than any other commandment in the Bible.   Maybe the reason for that is because this is one of the hardest things for human beings to do, to trust someone who is different from themselves.  With Passover coming in two weeks, we should all give some serious thought to Exodus 22:21, "You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." 

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

2012 heat wave: Spring has never been so early here!

Lately the news has been full of photos of cherry blossoms and daffodils blooming a month early in places like Washington, DC.  Here in Pine County, Minnesota, things are not that far along yet, but signs of spring are still unseasonably early. 

On the right you see a bouquet of budding twigs that include (from left to right) forsythia, false spirea, pussy willows and black maple.  For many years it has been our custom to cut a bouquet like this for Passover, then watch as the buds slowly open during the eight days of the festival.  Well, this year we are going to have to do something different, because Passover is still almost three weeks away and buds are swelling now.

Nor are budding trees the only early signs of spring.  The Canada geese are back, along with robins, starlings,  red-wing blackbirds, song sparrows, juncos, mourning doves, and the phoebe who nests in the rafters of our shed each year.  Pheasants are calling, grouse are drumming, and last night -- believe it or not -- I heard spring peeper frogs and the ones we call "clacking frogs" calling in the marsh across the road.  This is the absolute earliest that any of this has happened here as far as I can remember.

Those swelling maple buds meant that I didn't get any maple syrup.  Normally you start tapping the trees when the days are around 40 degrees and the nights are still below freezing.  But when the temperature soars into the high 70s like it has done this March (smashing local records for days in a row), the nights stay warm, the trees bud out, and the sap flow stops.  Everybody I've talked to around here says the same thing:  Their maple trees dried up overnight.  I never even bothered to tap mine.  Which is probably just as well, because we are also in a drought.  All of our snow seems to have moved way down south.  Arizona is getting buried, while Minnesota stays high and dry.  We only got one decent snowstorm here all winter, and within days it had melted away.  Yesterday we got a nice steady rain, which was a good thing, because with all that dried grass around, not to mention some very early lightning storms, the fire danger was extremely high.

All of which adds up to one thing:  Climate change is real, and it is here.