Saturday, August 20, 2011

Serendipity or phenotype?


I've always thought of TH as unique. I think many parents view their autistic children as not only quirky but also simply unique. There's just no one else like my oldest son. How could there be? He's got a seemingly disconnected and unduplicated collection of interests and obsessions, behaviors that are his and his alone, a way of living and being that's unmatched. At least...that's what I thought.

This summer, a family came to stay for a few days in the townhome across from ours. We knew they were there because Dubya, our middle son, came rushing into the home, uncharacteristically excited about meeting someone new. The "someone" was a boy about 11 years old whom I'll call Denton. This child, it seemed, wanted to meet us. Was waiting in our garage to do so.

Did I find that odd? Yes, I did. In part because Dubya was so so so enthusiastic about this Denton and in part because I've never, ever encountered a peer of my children who actually asked to meet me.

So, I descended into the garage to see a gangly boy, all elbows and angles, glasses, and...yep...that's it: a little bit of toe walking. He extended a hand, greeted me with a perfect script, and started telling me about ghost stories. I knew, without further data collection, that I was in the presence of one of our own. That Denton was from France.

What baffled me was Dubya's enthusiasm. The more I talked with Denton and watched him, the more I saw clear parallels between his behaviors and those of our oldest, TH. Yet, TH, the older brother, had the power to drive Dubya to the edge of reason, pushing buttons on that child that only older brothers can find. And here Dubya was, attracted to this boy who was so much like that needling, button-pushing older brother of his. Maybe it was those two things, that Denton was a person whose behaviors were well within Dubya's comfort zone and that Denton was not his big brother, that made Dubya so happy and excited to meet this new, chatty, sweet open book of a friend.

Then, we brought TH and Denton together. And that's when bemusement turned into wheel-grinding analysis. Why? Because these two boys who had never met seemed to have been living parallel lives complete with parallel likes. I'm not making it up when I say that one of TH's most notable exclamations (and one I secretly think to myself about 20 times a day) is, "Curse you, laws of physics!" And I'm not lying when I say that in the midst of the biggest "I love Pokemon, I love Mario, you have Wii!" geekfest I've ever heard--and damn, but these two were LOUD--I heard Denton holler out, "Curse you, laws of physics!"

Mario, SuperSmash Bros. Brawl (and with both boys pronouncing it "broze"), Pokemon--complete with a full-blown "I know more about Pokemon than you" competition, loud unmodulated voices echoing through the house--it was like TH had cloned himself at full volume. They're even both obsessed with ghosts and UFOs, each seemingly trying to out-talk the other to get a ghost story in edgewise.

As I pondered all of these similarities--I mean, really...there's a phenotype interacting with culture here, right?--Denton's mother came over. In the usual exchange of "Where are you from" and "Where do your kids go to school?", I kinda sorta purposely dropped that we homeschool TH in part because he has Asperger's. To no surprise, Denton's mom exclaimed that Denton, too, has Asperger's. And then, after considerably more conversation--can two autism parents ever get together without canvassing and comparing their children's entire early development?--came the kicker.

Regular readers of this blog or anyone who knows TH knows what his greatest obsession is. As it turns out, Denton has, throughout his lifetime, had the exact same obsession: Acorns. Collecting them by the dozens. Obsessing over them. Making designs with them. Getting upset if you try to throw them out. Acorns, people. We're talking a Scrat-level obsession with the little nuts. And here, there were two of them.

Asperger's and acorns. I'm dying to get my hands on these children's gene sequences. Do you think they carry an Acorn-loving gene that underlies this phenotype? In all seriousness, though, it's these behavioral manifestations that make me look to the future with some excitement, hoping that the fine-combed explorations of the genome will turn up some genetic underpinnings to explain this mutual cursing of the laws of physics and this mutual love of Mario, Pokemon, ghosts, and...acorns.