Autistic Wisdom: ‘The Animals Are Having Sex’

And more wise words from my autistic son

Young man in restaurant
As always, published with Diego’s permission

Diego, my 27-year-old son, has posture issues. He tends to look down, which compounds the problem. So on our long hike in Grand Teton National Park, my husband (Cesar) kept trying to find ways to motivate him to keep his head up.

“What’s that over there?” he’d say, pointing at something in the distance. Other times, he’d remind Diego to be on the lookout for wild animals, which our son loves to “summon,” just like Aquaman, his favorite Superhero, summons sea creatures. Cesar would wonder out loud: “Where are all the animals?” “Are the beavers out yet?” “Where did the animals go?”

“The animals are having sex,” was Diego’s recurring answer.

Only God almighty knows where that one came from. When I asked Diego how he knew the animals were having sex, he said, “Because they were.”

“And how do they have sex?” I asked. Well, Diego explained, the animals kiss and roll down the hill and fall in love “like Simba and Nala.” (From Disney’s The Lion King for those who don’t get the reference.)

And this, dear readers, is but one of the anecdotes I collected during our week-long trip to Wyoming.

As always, Diego can’t resist initiating interactions with strangers. Usually, he starts by giving a compliment, as he did in this case:

Diego to man and son: “Nice skis. We’re from Connecticut. Where you from?”

Man: “We’re from North Carolina.”

Diego, excitedly: “Oh, we went to North Carolina last year!”

Son: “We’re from Charlotte.”

Diego: “I love Charlotte [We’ve never been there]. We went to plantations in North Carolina… Happy Easter!”

The man and son parted with smiles on their faces, unlike the following woman, with whom the interaction went instantly sour:

Diego: “Arigato.”

Woman: “I’m not from Japan.”

Yeah, Diego profiles, yet I maintain there’s no malice or “ism” whatsoever in his profiling. It’s actually an attempt to connect. We’ve certainly tried hard to make him understand it’s not OK to say “Arigato” and “Ni hao” to folks who look Asian to him, or “Hola” to those he assumes are Hispanic. I think he finally got it on this trip.

Being with Diego 24/7, it’s impossible not to ponder what it must be like to have a mind like his and to marvel at how he has gone from a child who would turn into the Tasmanian Devil when disappointed to an adult able to handle curveballs better than many “normal” humans.

Take the fact that Yellowstone was closed. Yeah, we came to Wyoming excited to visit Yellowstone not knowing the park is accessible only from its Montana entrance this time of year.

To our defense, we didn’t really “plan” this vacation. Three years ago, we bid on a trip to South Africa at a fundraiser for Abilis, the agency that assists our son. (Diego was actually the one who had us place our name on the bid sheet.) Since the deadline to use the trip voucher was about to expire and South Africa was no longer on the table (you know, COVID), the travel company offered us various trips in the US and we selected this one.

In any event, Diego didn’t flip. Not about not going to South Africa to see the African animals he so loves. Not about not getting to visit Yellowstone.

Guess what though? Our travel package did include a tour of the “Yellowstone ecosystem,” during which Diego got to summon thousands of elk, tens of bighorn sheep, a handful of moose, two beavers, a blue heron, a bison, a muskrat, and a red-tailed hawk.

To be fair, I must admit all the animal spotting credit belongs to our friendly guide Michael G (from Grizzly Country Wildlife Adventures, totally worth it btw), who magically drove (safely), imparted fascinating facts about the ecosystem, and spotted camouflaged animals all at the same time.

I hope Diego didn’t annoy Trish (the other tourist in our van) with his constant talking. Though she was lovely and didn’t seem to mind, I reckon she’ll mention the peculiar (or hilarious, annoying, sweet?) young man on the tour. 

I’m also grateful neither Trish nor Michael even blinked when Diego twice commented that, “The animals are having sex.” 

Another important travel duty in Diego’s book is sending postcards. I help with those since Diego’s writing’s illegible. As always, he just wants to remind people of stuff he likes to do with them, such as “Let’s go out to eat at Mc Duffs,” and “Let’s watch Brother Bear.” This time, I convinced him to focus on vacation information. Perhaps this trip’s postcard recipients might notice the content change, things like, “I saw elk. I saw moose. I skied. I hiked.”

This travel duty ended with the postcards duly deposited in a mailbox. “Who’s gonna get out of the car and put them in?” Cesar asked. Looking at me, Diego suggested, “I think you should do it because I just ate a cookie.” Yep, Diego sure has infinite ways of saying no without saying no outright.

Teton Village being at the foot of the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, we also devoted a couple of days to skiing. Diego can ski, but only with his skis in pizza pie position and down the easy slopes. He actually worries mightily that we’ll go on a wrong slope, meaning anything beyond green. He does have some measure of fun, yet he’s always glad when the skiing’s over. 

When it was over this time around, Cesar asked Diego if he wanted to continue to get better at it. Diego said: 

“I want to get better at everything.”

Diego may be high-maintenance and have a low IQ, but he says the wisest things. 

That comment was one of two I had to write down because they moved and enlightened me. The other happened when we went shopping for a new ski jacket for him. It being the end of the season, the discounts were phenomenal. Plus Diego’s jacket’s the same one he’s had since he stopped growing over 12 years ago. Though he didn’t complain as he tried on various jackets, he was obviously doing it to humor us, not because he wanted one. Then, while Cesar and I debated whether to buy this or that jacket, Diego looked at me and said,

“I don’t want any of these jackets. I just want my old one.”

Diego sure understands “wants vs needs” better than most, including this parent, who bought herself a new ski jacket she didn’t really need.

📺 Have a look: Short video of Diego skiing, Diego-style.

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10 Quotes that Will Give You a Cosmic Perspective

From astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s MasterClass

Image by beate bachmann from Pixabay

I’m addicted to MasterClass.

You know how cooking shows can be entertaining even if you’re a terrible cook and you’re never going to prepare anything they’re showing?

MasterClass lessons are sort of like that. I know next to nothing about sales, hostage negotiations, wine appreciation, space travel or astrophysics, but the classes entertain and fascinate me.

In astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s MasterClass Scientific Thinking and Communication, you get to learn about cool stuff such as leap seconds (we’ve had  27 since 1972), the precise shape of the Earth (oblate spheroid, somewhat like a pear), and how planets are discovered.

Beyond such facts, though, the class is about human thought and the vital role of scientific thinking on human progress, sound decision-making, and perspective-taking.

Here are some quotes that got me pondering.

“The urge to feel special knows no bounds.”

“The cosmic perspective undoes this urge to feel special but it undoes it in a way that rebuilds it better than it was before.”

“The cosmic perspective teaches you that you’re special not for being different from everyone else but for being the same.”

There’s nothing wrong with feeling special. After all, not even identical twins are exactly alike. The combination of genes and environment makes for infinite possibilities. The problem is when being special is framed only in terms of how we’re different and unique, and when uniqueness leads us to think of ourselves and those like us as better than. This thinking is at the root of the human tribal mentality and the tendency of groups of people to dehumanize other groups.

The cosmic perspective frames being special in terms of how all humans (and all living creatures!) are alike and what’s common among us.

We’re all the product of cosmic events. We’re all made of stardust.

“Nature is the ultimate judge, jury and executioner. You can argue all you want but if nature doesn’t agree with you, you’re wrong. Whatever bias you’re bringing to the table, nature will decide.”

Nature is one of the only forces that doesn’t fail to humble us. Both in their beauty and wrath, natural phenomena have the power to elevate and terrify us. A magnificent sunset, a perfect ocean wave, a ravaging hurricane, or an unstoppable avalanche — they produce awe and remind us that our power and knowledge are limited.

Nature is an entity that proves us wrong. We obstinately argue against its truths at times. Think of Galileo, considered a heretic and persecuted by the Catholic Church for contradicting the Bible. Eventually, Galileo was proven right. Nature decides and prevails and is more powerful than any religious or political institution created by humankind. We should never bet against it!

“The day you stop making mistakes is the day you can be pretty sure you are no longer in the frontier.”

Though deGrasse speaks of the “moving frontier of science,” the same applies to any frontier of human endeavor. Olympic world records, for instance, are broken at every Olympics because those at the frontier of sports keep trying new techniques and finding better ways to train.

In the process of expanding any frontier, we necessarily make mistakes because we can’t know exactly what will move the frontier further afield.

New knowledge lies at the edge of the frontier. Only those willing to make mistakes can be on the frontier long enough to expand it.

“Search engines on the internet are the epitome of confirmation bias.”

Confirmation bias: the tendency to process information by looking for, or interpreting, information that is consistent with one’s existing beliefs.” 

We are all subject to cognitive biases, confirmation bias being one of the most common. We actively seek to read, watch and listen to information that confirms our beliefs, and discard conflicting evidence that lands on our laps.

No one who’s convinced climate change is real would Google the following: “Proof that climate change is unrelated to human activity.”

Even if you wanted to be neutral in the wording of your search, the algorithm will favor the types of results you have clicked on in the past! Such results will obviously favor your existing beliefs. Search engines rely on and intensify our biases. I, for one, find this deeply troubling.

“If you want to get closer to objective truths, you have to be able to say to yourself, ‘I was wrong.’”

It’s so hard to do. We hold on to our beliefs for dear life and are drawn to people who speak with a sense of certainty.

Beware of anyone who never admits to making a mistake and who always blames others for anything that happens within their specific area of influence.

Such an individual isn’t interested in the truth.

“If someone keeps repeating something to you, chances are they want you to believe it without analysis, without judgment.”

This is not always the case of course, though it often is when it comes to politicians or anyone trying to manipulate.

“Climate change is real.” “Climate change is a hoax.” We hear opposing statements such as these over and over. One clue as to which is more likely to be false or true is whether those making the statement are asking you to believe it just because they say so, or by providing scientific evidence that has been replicated, peer-reviewed, and on which scientific consensus exists.

“Writing is the ultimate form of communication because it passes through time. You can talk to someone 100 years from now when they read your writing.”

As a writer, of course I love this quote. It makes writing sound like time travel!

You just never know who’ll come across something you wrote way after you’re gone, and if you’ll get people in the distant future to change, do or understand something because of what you wrote a century ago.

“A theory is the highest level of understanding we have of anything in this world. It explains what we know has already happened, gives us an understanding of what is happening, and gives predictive power of things that have yet to happen.”

Whoa. Isn’t that something? A scientific theory must apply to the past, present and future. Now that’s a cosmic perspective.

It’s no small thing for a scientific proposition to become a theory. Take the Theory of Evolution. It explains the diversity of living forms, why species die out and change, and gives us a notion of which species may adapt to or survive environmental changes.

“What is wisdom after all? It’s the distilled essence of knowledge once you’ve forgotten all the details.”

Wisdom, in adults, comes from the ability to analyze — deeply, honestly and humbly — accumulated knowledge and experience.

Wisdom requires a cosmic perspective, one that teaches that:

“You’re special not for being different from everyone else, but for being the same.”

🎧 YouTube link, for those who like to watch and listen.

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