Week 7: Read books, read faces

Reading has always been Logan’s favorite activity.

In early October the New York Times ran an article about a study that shows certain types of reading can help improve emotional IQ. In other words, reading books helps with reading faces.

I’m fascinated with this—a bridge joining my two current obsessions (and blogs): literature and autism. Of course, the study does not address autism in any way, but as a large part of autism is having the inability to identify emotions in others and empathize with them, I see an interesting connection. As the mother of a 3-year-old son with autism, my first thought after reading the article was of course, “Ah! Maybe reading more to Logan might help!”

And also of course, my second thought was that the study doesn’t apply to people with autism—in fact, my son must be proof that it doesn’t. Logan has been read to every single day for at minimum 30 minutes since he was a day old. And that’s at minimum. He has more than 50 books on his bedroom bookshelf; there are about 100 more scattered throughout the house. I even read My Secret Book by Francis Petrarch to him out loud when he was one month because I was in grad school and I had to read it for class (Petrarch, by the way, is the 14th century father of humanism, father of the Renaissance, and inventor of the Italian sonnet form.). If I were a betting man, as they say, I’d put money down that Logan is among the most-read to kid ever. And yet he barely registers when another person is angry or sad.

My third thought? But maybe more would help … As every parent of a child with autism knows, you at times feel so despondent that you start believing anything might help. I think even parents of normally developing children relate to this—we all want to do whatever we can for our children. It’s simply what parents do.

The study, by researchers Emanuele Castano and David Comer Kidd, concludes that reading literary fiction leads to higher empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence. Note that was literary fiction—not all fiction, not all reading produces the same results. While I read to Logan, and he himself is beginning to read, too, he’s certainly not reading Chekov or Dickens. Even the Petrarch I read to him wouldn’t count—that’s an example of literary nonfiction. His books are more in the popular fiction category, which focus more on delivering a plot rather than exploring facets of reality or moral issues. I think it’s safe to say The Cow Loves Cookies posits no ethical statement.

But it gives me hope that when Logan grows up and becomes able to read more challenging texts, perhaps his reading list might help with this characteristic of his autism. Perhaps if he can read Of Mice and Men one day, he’ll be able to recognize jealousy, kindness, and fear.

And there are lots of books aimed at helping children with emotions. Logan really likes reading How Do Dinosaurs Say I’m Mad?, No More Hitting, and I am a Rainbow, about the different colors of emotions we feel.  Even silly  books like Llama Llama and the Bully Goat teach about emotions to an extent. It’s possible reading these helps with not only the typical things reading is good for (language development, vocabulary, comprehension, curiosity, love of learning, etc.) but also social interactions.

Can you read my face?

I do have one quibble with the study: Researchers tested readers of nonfiction and specifically chose works like “How the Potato Changed the World” to maximize the contrast between fiction and nonfiction. For the initial study I suppose that makes sense. But what about people who routinely read literary nonfiction (aka creative nonfiction)? Are they more attuned to reading others’ emotions? I just can’t believe someone who’s read Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty or The Latehomecomer by Kalia Kao Yang wouldn’t have a high emotional IQ.

But again my own life might be proof I’m wrong. My husband and I both took the test given in this research study, which asked participants to observe 36 photographs of eyes and determine which emotion each was displaying. My husband has not read a piece of literary fiction in probably 20 years—the only book at all he’s read in the past eight years was The Book of Poker Tells. Nonfiction, and not exactly literary. I, on the other hand, was just accused by my students of being a “bibliophile,” which our class textbook defines as someone who reads more than 50 books per year. Of course, I expected to kick my husband’s butt on this test.

We scored the exact same. 29/36, which falls in the average range. (It is, though, the highest score in the average range.)

So maybe reading literary nonfiction does not count; maybe if I had taken the fiction track rather than the creative nonfiction track in school, I’d have scored better. Or maybe reading one measly poker book is equally helpful as reading an armload of literature. I suppose the goal of playing poker is to read someone’s cards by reading his or her face, after all.

Maybe we should start teaching Logan poker …

Week 6: Easing in again

Since we discovered that going CF had, definitely, probably, had an effect on Logan, we decided to go back on the CF diet–somewhat.  I say definitely, probably, because a few days after we learned about his returning pushing and lack of focus when milk was reintroduced, I took him in for a physical.  He needed to be confirmed healthy enough for surgery (which is a completely separate issue from his PDD-NOS) on his tear duct.  At the physical, we learned Logan had an ear infection.

Which was surprising, because Logan hadn’t indicated at all he was in discomfort or pain.  Then it wasn’t at all surprising because Logan has never communicated to us when he’s been feeling sick or uncomfortable, likely because of autism.  But, of course, it suggests a possibility that the regression we saw last week might not have been from a dietary change but from an untreated ear infection.

The upcoming surgery also worried me, and I wanted to be able to give Logan anything he asked for when he came out of surgery (the last time he was hospitalized, a few months ago, he came out of a CT scan asking for mozzarella cheese.)  So for now, we’ve switched back to coconut milk and almond milk only.  We’re not worrying about casein in food such as breads.  It’s simplifying life a little, and we’re hoping that as his ear infection is treated, he returns to the good progress he’d been making.  But, if he doesn’t, we’ll go back to fully CF.  At least it’s a nice ease in (though it does seem like after six weeks, we should be past the “easing in” phase … sigh.)

The transition back in has also been eased by the help I’ve gotten from so many thoughtful people.  A friend of mine periodically bakes us delicious vegan (and therefore CF) banana bread, and another friend of mine has been so kind to not only tell me about a good rice noodle package available at grocery stores but also buy me a box to show me exactly what she meant.  My mom has brought over some awesome snack products from Trader Joe’s.  Friends on Facebook have messaged with advice and encouragement, and I’ve been so moved by everyone’s support.  To all of you, thank you!

Feeling: Supported

Week 5: Giving up and getting back

I guess you could say good came from giving up.

Last week I came home from work and my husband said he’d ordered a pizza.  And I couldn’t say anything because the look on his face clearly said he couldn’t cook that night.  And I was too exhausted, too.  So pizza it was, casein included.

And it was good timing.  We had a camping trip planned for that weekend, and I’d been trying to figure out how to maneuver casein-free campfire cooking.  I mean, cooking is hard enough for me–let alone cooking caveman-style–add CF on top of that?  Now, luckily, I had an excuse to simply throw in the towel.  And I didn’t feel bad about it.  We hadn’t been sure if Logan’s CF diet was having any effect, anyway.  He seemed the same.  He’d stopped pushing at daycare and seemed to be more interested in playing with other children, his daycare teacher had said, but there was a good chance that was due to his also starting special education preschool where they focus on social skills every day.  So stopping CF to see what happened actually seemed like an accidentally smart plan.

On the camping trip, Logan basically gorged himself on dairy.  All his favorite foods were suddenly available again: strawberry milk, string cheese, and chocolate (s’mores!).  He happily told me several times, “casein is good for my body.”

The night before he went back to daycare, I noticed his ears were flaming red.  This wasn’t too alarming.  From the time he’s been a baby, he periodically has rosy cheeks and ears.  We tested him for allergies because of it, but all results came back negative.  As I scrubbed Logan’s hair in the bath that night, I tried to remember the last time his ears had turned red like this, though, and I couldn’t recall.

The next morning, Logan couldn’t tell his teacher what he’d done that weekend.  As I was dropping him off, the teacher asked him if he’d had a good weekend.  No response.

What did you do?  she asked.

No response.

Logan, where did we go this weekend? I prompted him.

No response.

Logan, tell Miss Cathy what we did outside this weekend.

No response.  He seemed unable to focus, which used to be common for him but like his red ears, it was something I hadn’t seen in awhile.  That afternoon, I told my husband I thought reintroducing casein was showing effects.

And when I picked Logan up from daycare, his teacher pulled me aside.  Logan had had trouble focusing all day, she said, and had been aggressive again, too, pushing other the other children which he hasn’t done for quite some time…

So apparently, now we have our answer: Going CF had been effective.  Time to grin and bear the difficulties and get back to it.

Feeling: Justified

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