Cane Toads and Consequences

A parable: From 1935-37, 62,000 cane toads were introduced into Australia in an effort to control, if not eradicate, the sugarcane beetle. Not only did the effort fail (cane beetles are diurnal and live high up on the six to eight feet tall sugar canes, while cane toads are nocturnal and cannot climb well), the effort backfired. Cane toads are thriving in Australia. Over 200 million now crowd the landscape, and they continue to proliferate. Although they do they not eat many cane beetles, they eat many desirable, indigenous species, particularly of reptiles that control the rodent population. Even worse, their skin emits a toxin that kills almost every aspiring predator. Indeed, the cane toad is the textbook example of biological control gone awry.

Why, you may be wondering, am I writing about cane toads in a blog about parenting and neurodiversity? Because the story of the cane toad may not be a great parable (parables are usually apocryphal, I think), but it is a great illustration of the Law of Unintended Consequences.

News feeds last week heralded the announcement that scientists at MIT have succeeded in reversing some of autism’s hallmark behaviors in mice. Approximately one per cent of people with autism are missing a gene called Shank3. If the Shank3 gene is “turned off” in mice, the mice become more socially avoidant, they engage in repetitive behaviors, their motor planning is compromised, and they exhibit greater anxiety. When the researchers reactivated the Shank3 gene after several weeks, the (now) adult mice became more social, and they discontinued their repetitive behaviors. Notably, the motor planning deficits and high anxiety level did not diminish. Guoping Feng, the professor conducting this research, optimistically remarked, “There is more and more evidence showing that some of the defects are indeed reversible, giving hope that we can develop treatment for autistic patients in the future."

Is this the first step in a “cure” for autism? If it is, I will not be on the cheerleading squad. Autism and other neurological differences serve a vital purpose for our species. I believe this with absolute conviction. I do not pretend to know fully what that purpose is, but I am certain we will find out if autism is “cured.” We will find out how much creativity and innovation disappears.

Just this week I read an article describing how the Israeli army has started assigning people with autism to an elite intelligence unit. Most people with autism are visually and spatially gifted, and apparently their gifts perfectly fit the bill for studying reconnaissance maps. Another story, one about prodigies, discussed research showing that half of the prodigies studied have at least one autistic relative no more distant than a niece or grandparent. Dr. Joanne Ruthsatz, who conducted the study, says she and her colleagues “found that the prodigies and their autistic relatives both seemed to have a genetic mutation or mutations on the short arm of Chromosome 1 that were not shared by their neurotypical relatives.” Just this morning when I took a break from writing this to peruse the Sunday paper, I saw that the cover story in Parade magazine is about a special effects lab in Hollywood whose employees are autistic.

Many people, I suspect, will retort that I am describing only Aspies, brilliant but quirky professors and tech geniuses. I am not. Chris Chapman, the man hired by Marvel Studios to work on their special effects team is described as “excruciatingly quiet and shy.” He clearly exhibits difficulty with transitions (as we say in IEP jargon). Victoria Alonso, Marvel Studio’s executive vice president of physical production, said, “We give Chris work that is steady, and if there’s a change midstream we let him finish . . . He’s smart, detail oriented and dedicated . . . From the bottom of my heart, it’s a no-brainer.” From the bottom of my heart, I thank Ms. Alonso for being a good manager, for accommodating her employees’ personalities in order to make the most of their strengths.

My daughter Sam is, as one of her teachers observed, “pretty far out there.” I’ve talked about this before. She cannot pass for an NT for five minutes. But she is the child who came home from school and told me that her history class was discussing the ways in which a person’s freedom can be restricted (presumably as a segue into post Civil War America): “I said I think social rules restrict my freedom. Do you think that was a good answer?”

Indeed I do. I also think it takes someone who chafes at those constraints to ask the question about why some of these rules persist.


On a lighter note: Last year Sam’s English teacher counted the students’ use of “like” and “um” during some class presentation. Sam reported that one girl got 26 likes and 23 ums. “I know that likes are a good thing, but what about ums?” Sam wondered. “There isn’t an um button on Facebook.”

I recorded this anecdote in my journal when I was reading a book entitled Autism as Context Blindness, but I am reminded of it now because Facebook just announced new buttons for the times that “like” seems like the wrong response. Sad to say, Um is not one of the new choices.