I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the environmental factor in autism. Sure , we know it is only one possible theory as we already know that it’s also made up of a genetic component. And yes, I know there are certain people out there with theories that vaccinations have triggered off those children that were already genetically pre-disposed but that is an argument that I am NOT going into as this is not the direction that I want to take this post in.
So, I know that environment is only one small part but I definitely feel that it can be a big part nonetheless. Tony Attwood has said that to reach a diagnosis of aspergers, it is like ‘completing a 100-piece jigsaw puzzle. You need 80 or more pieces to complete the picture’.
So, my boys are obviously made up of 80 or more pieces (and I believe the husband is too) . He often jokes to me that I am only one piece short of receiving a diagnosis myself.
In fact he regularly affectionately calls me ’Mrs 79′. He is referring to the obsessions that I have developed over the almost 14 years that we have been married. When we first got hitched, he took a photo of our master bedroom to show the difference between his side and mine.
His was spick and span, neat and tidy and
anally perfectly organised. And then my side……clothes thrown everywhere, books piled high and balanced precariously on the bedside table, an abundance of moisturising creams and make up in the drawer that was regularly left open and shoes strewn carelessly over the floor.
You get the picture.
deliberately misplaced couldn’t find that particular photo anywhere to put it on this post so you’ll have to take my word for it!
I was young, messy, lazy, nonplussed and regularly made fun of Mr Patient for his pedantic and obsessive ways.
I clearly remember (not knowing about ASDs back then) that he often had what I can now see were actuallymeltdowns if things didn’t go exactly as he’d imagined they would or if plans changed without his prior knowledge. For example: Before meeting me, every 1st Saturday of each month was spent on the ‘inside’ of the house cleaning, and every other Saturday was when he would do the ‘outside’ (mow the lawns etc). So you can imagine his freak-out the first time that I invited friends over for lunch on ‘Outside Saturday’ week. Or made a picnic and suggested we drive to the beach on ‘Inside Saturday’….. He struggled to say the least!
But then as the years passed, I became more and more obsessive myself. I became the mother that had all of my children’s clothes hanging on the same coloured hanger as the shirt: White shirts on white hangers, blue shirts on blue, orange shirts on orange hangers and they were all grouped together in the colours that blended.
The blue shirts were next to the green which were next to the yellow which merged seamlessly into orange etc. No-one else was allowed to touch the clothes…….including Mr Patient and I would flip out if anyone so much as looked at the wardrobes.
And when I hung clothes on the clothes line – blue clothes HAD TO be hung with TWO blue pegs. I simply wouldn’t cope if you used a red and a blue peg. *Gasp*
I had also started to turn into a neat freak wanting everything perfectly in its place and working myself to the bone to make it happen. I would screech at the children if they had more than one toy out and I was unable to leave the house in the mornings until ALL of the beds were made and the dishes were done on the off-chance that SOMEONE would come and visit. (No-one ever did). I really started to be bothered by all of this and questioned myself as I knew that this wasn’t the real me.
So I took myself off to see a psychologist fearing that I was losing it big time!
I had a lot going on; My Dad had just passed away, Harley was only recently diagnosed, I had suffered a particularly nasty case of glandular fever (mono) that almost turned into CFS and my body was in shut-down due to the 4 major surgeries it had endured in just 2 years.
My immune system wasn’t coping and my stress levels were at an all time high. The psychologist helped me to see that everything else in my life was literally spiralling out of control and I so desperately wanted to gain back some control. And the washing was one thing that I actually COULD do something about.
She gently explained that what I was doing was a form of ‘normalizing’ my life. By controlling these mundane every day things so closely I was able to take back some ground that I thought I had lost through circumstances beyond my control. Nowadays – I still LIKE my clothes to be on the right hangers but if they aren’t, I don’t lose it, I’m able to just shrug my shoulders and move on!
I have realised that it’s not the end of the world if a blue shirt goes on a red hanger and my house RARELY looks like a show home anymore. (I have three children for goodness sake!)
And yes, there is actually a point to this – stay with me, I’ll reach it eventually…..
So, back to the environmental factor in autism.
I was never a particularly obsessive person, in fact the bedroom photo story proves that point perfectly, but when stress and circumstances were combined……I did develop some very obsessive tendencies that are often associated with spectrum disorders.
So it is interesting to me now to look back and realise that environmental factors DO in fact play a large part in autism. And the term ‘environmental factors’ does not just apply to untested chemicals, pesticides, flame retardants, detergents etc.. but things like the circumstances of our life, or the environment in which we live and also our everyday surroundings .
I wonder that if I was married to someone who was as sloppy as me and also didn’t care for routine, if things would have been different? I may not have dived into these obsessive natures that I often witnessed in my husband as HIS coping strategies and I wouldn’t be comparing my non-coping signs to those of individuals on the autistic spectrum?
I guess I’ll never know.
But my mum tells me that as a child growing up, I didn’t struggle in social situations, I made friends very easily and I was NEVER obsessive or needed routine or structure. I thrived with change and I know for myself that I have never felt particularly ’different”’or had any trouble understanding body language or facial expressions.
Yet……now that I am the only NT in (what may as well be called) a house full of aspies – I have somehow been ‘moulded’ into an honorary aspie if you will. I think it’s just a case of sink or swim.
I have needed to adapt to my surroundings and I have had to choose to see things through a different lens.
I may have gradually gone from perhaps 20 pieces, to 30, then to 40 and now I may possibly be up in the 70s so I truly believe that the environmental factor HAS played quite a major part here.
It surely makes sense. I live it and breathe it. It’s all I am surrounded with. It’s something that I can never and would never WANT TO escape.
It’s all A-OK with me because 79 is a FABULOUS number after all.
Have a great weekend all.