Saturday, February 12, 2011

Did Grandpa Have an ASD?

My first wife’s father was something of a mechanical genius. He was exceedingly bright in some ways.  He designed and built an array of mechanical devices, always with great precision. He found it beyond belief that there was anyone that did not adjust the timing on their car’s engine themselves.  He was also a perfectionist.  Nothing he or anyone else did ever seemed quite right or good enough to him.  He was always dissatisfied.  He was also devoid of humor, at least humor that most people understood. When jokes were told he often acknowledged that he “didn’t get it.”  He was very literal.  

He was exceedingly fastidious.  His work shirts and pants had to be ironed just so or he had his wife to re-do them.  The shop where he built those remarkable devices that he invented looked more like a laboratory than a mechanical shop.  There was zero clutter, all floors were devoid of dirt, oil stains or any spots that one expected to see in a workshop.  All tools were stored unless they were being used at that moment. Nothing was left out on workbenches.  He was preoccupied with everyone’s following rules exactly as specified. He had a habit of driving in the outside (passing) lane on interstate highways exactly at the speed limit so cars couldn’t pass him at higher speeds.  He was disgusted with the highway patrol’s not rigorously enforcing the speed limit.  It was impossible to reason with him.  Once he had an opinion about anything, there was no changing his opinion. He often perseverated on a topic, seemingly endlessly, and did not notice that others were disinterested.

His great grandson, my grandson, has moderate to high functioning autism spectrum disorder.  There is strong evidence that autism and autistic traits run in families. There is a recurrence rate in families of about 5-10% with siblings, though some forms of autism are more heritable than others.  His own children did not have autism traits, though there were mood disorder symptoms in the family, so apparently the condition skipped a generation.  Today, Grandpa might very well be described as having Asperger disorder, but of course we’ll never know. John Constantino at Washington University in St.Louis finds that autism traits are widely distributed in the population, but only people with genetic predisposition express them.  Judith Miles’s work at the University of Missouri indicates the heritable form of autism (Essential Autism) with a recurrence rate in relatives of 20%. Makes me wonder how many families included members like Grandpa in years past and who are now being diagnosed with an ASD.  I’m guessing it was pretty common.  

Would I have felt differently about my often very difficult father-in-law had I been aware of his probable Asperger disorder?  Probably, but we'll never know that for sure either.

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