Decoding A Long-Sent Signal

People with autism spectrum disorders like Asperger’s Syndrome have become much more visible in a number of different media lately. For example, take Dr. Sheldon Cooper, the ASD brilliant, socially awkward star of the CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory.

Sheldon has an amazing mind for physics, but has more tics than a Swiss watch and all the charming, socially endearing mannerisms of a punch-drunk porcupine. That, to most people, is the face of Asperger’s or the spectrum.

And, although possibly much exaggerated for comedic effect, it’s also the face of the type of parent who might also give birth to a child with ASD.

“Parents of kids with autism don’t have autism or a genetic mutation, but they do have a similar personality type. It’s actually been labeled as the geek type,” said Dr. Robert Melillo, founder of the  Brain Balance Achievement Centers, an internationally recognized expert on Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and author of the recent book,  Autism: The Scientific Truth About Preventing, Diagnosing, and Treating Autism Spectrum Disorders–and What Parents Can Do Now. “Computer types; math, science folks; very intellectual. Those people are more likely to have a child with autism.”

Not really sure I’d count as a mathy person, especially considering that last week I told a class of fifth graders that I hated math and that if anyone said they actually liked it they were filthy, filthy liars. Still, I have definitely been labeled as a geek more than once. But more prone to having a child with ASD?

“That’s been pretty well documented,” Melillo said. “Wired Magazine had on the cover story on it where they called Autism and Asperger’s the Geek Syndrome. One in 15 in Silicon Valley kids have Asperger’s syndrome. Where there are pockets of a high density of children with autism, you usually find pockets of parents working in the high-tech industries.

“In addition, as you go up the socioeconomic scale, we find the more intelligent the parent is, the more money they make, the more likely they are to have autism. And that’s not related to the degree of medical care they can receive.”

That last bit rather neatly cut the legs off my next argument. I realize Dr. Melillo said that the meteoric rise in the number of ASD cases couldn’t be attributed only to diagnostic awareness, but I thought for sure the whole link to high-tech enclaves had to be something to do with how much medical care they can access.

“This sort of information, it cuts to the core of what autism is,” Melillo said. “What autism is, is a functional disconnection. There’s an imbalance in the development of the brain. There’s sections of the brain, particularly in the right side, that don’t keep up with growth in the rest of the brain. These are kids gifted in left-brain skills because of their parents.”

Right-brain skills, he said, are more social skills such as verbal interaction with others. That’s the area, Melillo said, where people on the spectrum really struggle.

“If we can’t coordinate both sides of the brain to work together, and one side of the brain is underdeveloped, we’re looking at autism,” he said. 

After my long conversation with Dr. Melillo, I emerged feeling as if I’d been exposed to an entirely new paradigm. While I’m not convinced the key to ASD lies completely in the environmental side of things, Dr. Melillo did bring up some intriguing ideas. I remain unconvinced about part of his argument because of his reliance on left brain/right brain theory which, according to a recent Psychology Today article, is unfounded. Still, Dr. Melillo did offer a nice counter to that idea.

Regardless, he’s certainly given me a lot to think about.

If you’d like to know more about autism and autism spectrum disorders, then please go hit up the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They’ve got a tremendous repository of information about ASD. There’s great statistics, some key information about treatment and diagnosis. . . Basically, if you have a question about ASDs, that’s where you’ll find the answer.

Wow, I was really tempted not to write this paragraph, mostly because the last one ended with a total word count for this post of 666 and I could never resist a good joke. Which, I can only guess, we’ll be seeing more of tomorrow as we’re back to the routine of me slamming pies into my own face. See you dudes then.

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