Chapter no 2

The Rosie Project (Don Tillman, #1)

I had titled my talk “Genetic Precursors to Autism Spectrum Disorders” and sourced some excellent diagrams of DNA structures. I had only been speaking for nine minutes, a little faster than usual to recover time, when Julie interrupted.

“Professor Tillman. Most of us here are not scientists, so you may need to be a little less technical.” is sort of thing is incredibly annoying. People can tell you the supposed characteristics of a Gemini or a Taurus and will spend five days watching a cricket match but cannot find the interest or the time to learn the basics of what they, as humans, are made up of.

I continued with my presentation as I had prepared it. It was too late to change and surely some of the audience were informed enough to understand.

I was right. A hand went up, a male of about twelve.

“You are saying that it is unlikely that there is a single genetic marker, but rather that several genes are implicated and the aggregate expression depends on the specific combination. Armative?”

Exactly! “Plus environmental factors. e situation is analogous to bipolar disorder, which—”

Julie interrupted again. “So, for us nongeniuses, I think Professor Tillman is reminding us that Asperger’s is something you’re born with. It’s nobody’s fault.”

I was horrified by the use of the word fault, with its negative connotations, especially as it was being employed by someone in authority. I abandoned my decision not to deviate from the genetic issues. e matter had doubtless been brewing in my unconscious, and the volume of my voice may have increased as a result.

“Fault! Asperger’s isn’t a fault. It’s a variant. It’s potentially a major advantage. Asperger’s syndrome is associated with organization, focus, innovative thinking, and rational detachment.”

A woman at the rear of the room raised her hand. I was focused on the argument now and made a minor social error, which I quickly corrected.

e fat woman—overweight woman—at the back?”

She paused and looked around the room, but then continued, “Rational detachment: is that a euphemism for lack of emotion?”

“Synonym,” I replied. “Emotions can cause major problems.”

I decided it would be helpful to provide an example, drawing on a story in which emotional behavior would have led to disastrous consequences.

“Imagine,” I said, “you’re hiding in a basement. e enemy is searching for you and your friends. Everyone has to keep totally quiet, but your baby is crying.” I did an impression, as Gene would, to make the story more convincing: “Waaaaa.” I paused dramatically. “You have a gun.”

Hands went up everywhere.

Julie jumped to her feet as I continued. “With a silencer. ey’re coming closer. ey’re going to kill you all. What do you do? e baby’s screaming


e kids couldn’t wait to share their answer. One called out, “Shoot the baby,” and soon they were all shouting, “Shoot the baby, shoot the baby.”

e boy who had asked the genetics question called out, “Shoot the enemy,” and then another said, “Ambush them.”

e suggestions were coming rapidly. “Use the baby as bait.”

“How many guns do we have?” “Cover its mouth.”

“How long can it live without air?”

As I had expected, all the ideas came from the Asperger’s “suerers.” e parents made no constructive suggestions; some even tried to suppress their children’s creativity.

I raised my hands. “Time’s up. Excellent work. All the rational solutions came from the aspies. Everyone else was incapacitated by emotion.”

One boy called out, “Aspies rule!” I had noted this abbreviation in the literature, but it appeared to be new to the children. ey seemed to like it and soon were standing on the chairs and then the desks, punching the air and chanting, “Aspies rule!” in chorus. According to my reading, children

with Asperger’s syndrome frequently lack self-confidence in social situations. eir success in problem solving seemed to have provided a temporary cure for this, but again their parents were failing to provide positive feedback, shouting at them and in some cases attempting to pull them down from the desks. Apparently they were more concerned with adherence to social convention than with the progress their children were making.

I felt I had made my point eectively, and Julie did not think we needed to continue with the genetics. e parents appeared to be reflecting on what their children had learned and left without interacting with me further. It was only 7:43 p.m. An excellent outcome.

As I packed up my laptop, Julie burst out laughing. “Oh my God,” she said. “I need a drink.”

I was not sure why she was sharing this information with someone she had known for only forty-six minutes. I planned to consume some alcohol myself when I arrived home but saw no reason to inform Julie.

She continued, “You know, we never use that word. Aspies. We don’t want them thinking it’s some sort of club.” More negative implications from someone who was presumably paid to assist and encourage.

“Like homosexuality?” I said.

“Touché,” said Julie. “But it’s dierent. If they don’t change, they’re not going to have real relationships; they’ll never have partners.” is was a reasonable argument, and one that I could understand, given my own diculties in that sphere. But Julie changed the subject. “But you’re saying there are things—useful things—they can do better than . . . nonaspies? Besides killing babies.”

“Of course.” I wondered why someone involved in the education of people with uncommon attributes was not aware of the value of and market for such attributes. “ere’s a company in Denmark that recruits aspies for computer applications testing.”

“I didn’t know that,” said Julie. “You’re really giving me a dierent perspective.” She looked at me for a few moments. “Do you have time for a drink?” And then she put her hand on my shoulder.

I flinched automatically. Definitely inappropriate contact. If I had done that to a woman, there would almost certainly have been a problem, possibly a sexual harassment complaint to the Dean, which could have

consequences for my career. Of course, no one was going to criticize her for it.

“Unfortunately, I have other activities scheduled.” “No flexibility?”

“Definitely not.” Having succeeded in recovering lost time, I was not about to throw my life into chaos again.

• • •

Before I met Gene and Claudia I had two other friends. e first was my older sister. Although she was a mathematics teacher, she had little interest in advances in the field. However, she lived nearby and would visit twice weekly and sometimes randomly. We would eat together and discuss trivia, such as events in the lives of our relatives and social interactions with our colleagues. Once a month, we drove to Shepparton for Sunday dinner with our parents and brother. She was single, probably as a result of being shy and not conventionally attractive. Due to gross and inexcusable medical incompetence, she is now dead.

e second friend was Daphne, whose friendship period also overlapped with Gene and Claudia’s. She moved into the apartment above mine after her husband entered a nursing home as a result of dementia. Due to knee failure, exacerbated by obesity, she was unable to walk more than a few steps, but she was highly intelligent and I began to visit her regularly. She had no formal qualifications, having performed a traditional female homemaker role. I considered this to be an extreme waste of talent— particularly as her descendants did not return the care. She was curious about my work, and we initiated the Teach Daphne Genetics Project, which was fascinating for both of us.

She began eating her dinner in my apartment on a regular basis, as there are massive economies of scale in cooking one meal for two people rather than two separate meals. Each Sunday at 3:00 p.m. we would visit her husband at the nursing home, which was 7.3 kilometers away. I was able to combine a 14.6-kilometer walk pushing a wheelchair with interesting conversation about genetics. I would read while she spoke to her husband, whose level of comprehension was dicult to determine but definitely low.

Daphne had been named after the plant that was flowering at the time of her birth, on the twenty-eighth of August. On each birthday, her husband would give her daphne flowers, and she considered this a highly romantic

action. She complained that her approaching birthday would be the first occasion in fifty-six years on which this symbolic act would not be performed. e solution was obvious, and when I wheeled her to my apartment for dinner on her seventy-eighth birthday, I had purchased a quantity of the flowers to give her.

She recognized the smell immediately and began crying. I thought I had made a terrible error, but she explained that her tears were a symptom of happiness. She was also impressed by the chocolate cake that I had made, but not to the same extent.

During the meal, she made an incredible statement: “Don, you would make someone a wonderful husband.”

is was so contrary to my experiences of being rejected by women that I was temporarily stunned. en I presented her with the facts—the history of my attempts to find a partner, beginning with my assumption as a child that I would grow up and get married, and finishing with my abandonment of the idea as the evidence grew that I was unsuitable.

Her argument was simple: there’s someone for everyone. Statistically, she was almost certainly correct. Unfortunately, the probability that I would find such a person was vanishingly small. But it created a disturbance in my brain, like a mathematical problem that we know must have a solution.

For her next two birthdays, we repeated the flower ritual. e results were not as dramatic as the first time, but I also purchased gifts for her— books on genetics—and she seemed very happy. She told me that her birthday had always been her favorite day of the year. I understood that this view was common in children, owing to the gifts, but had not expected it in an adult.

Ninety-three days after the third birthday dinner, we were traveling to the nursing home, discussing a genetics paper that Daphne had read the previous day, when it became apparent that she had forgotten some significant points. It was not the first time in recent weeks that her memory had been faulty, and I immediately organized an assessment of her cognitive functioning. e diagnosis was Alzheimer’s disease.

Daphne’s intellectual capability deteriorated rapidly, and we were soon unable to have our discussions about genetics. But we continued our meals and walks to the nursing home. Daphne now spoke primarily about her past, focusing on her husband and family, and I was able to form a generalized view of what married life could be like. She continued to insist

that I could find a compatible partner and enjoy the high level of happiness that she had experienced in her own life. Supplementary research confirmed that Daphne’s arguments were supported by evidence: married men are happier and live longer.

One day Daphne asked, “When will it be my birthday again?” and I realized that she had lost track of dates. I decided that it would be acceptable to lie in order to maximize her happiness. e problem was to source some daphne out of season, but I had unexpected success. I was aware of a geneticist who was working on altering and extending the flowering of plants for commercial reasons. He was able to supply my flower vendor with some daphne, and we had a simulated birthday dinner. I repeated the procedure each time Daphne asked about her birthday.

Eventually, it was necessary for Daphne to join her husband at the nursing home, and as her memory failed, we celebrated her birthdays more often, until I was visiting her daily. e flower vendor gave me a special loyalty card. I calculated that Daphne had reached the age of 207, according to the number of birthdays, when she stopped recognizing me, and 319 when she no longer responded to the daphne and I abandoned the visits.

• • •

I did not expect to hear from Julie again. As usual, my assumptions about human behavior were wrong. Two days after the lecture, at 3:37 p.m., my phone rang with an unfamiliar number. Julie left a message asking me to call back, and I deduced that I must have left something behind.

I was wrong again. She wanted to continue our discussion of Asperger’s syndrome. I was pleased that my input had been so influential. She suggested we meet over dinner, which was not the ideal location for productive discussion, but as I usually eat dinner alone, it would be easy to schedule. Background research was another matter.

“What specific topics are you interested in?”

“Oh,” she said, “I thought we could just talk generally . . . get to know each other a bit.”

is sounded unfocused. “I need at least a broad indication of the subject domain. What did I say that particularly interested you?”

“Oh . . . I guess the stuff about the computer testers in Denmark.” “Computer applications testers.” I would definitely need to do some

research. “What would you like to know?”

“I was wondering how they found them. Most adults with Asperger’s syndrome don’t know they have it.”

It was a good point. Interviewing random applicants would be a highly inecient way to detect a syndrome that has an estimated prevalence of less than 0.3 percent.

I ventured a guess. “I presume they use a questionnaire as a preliminary filter.” I had not even finished the sentence when a light went on in my head—not literally, of course.

A questionnaire! Such an obvious solution. A purpose-built, scientifically valid instrument incorporating current best practice to filter out the time wasters, the disorganized, the ice-cream discriminators, the visual-harassment complainers, the crystal gazers, the horoscope readers, the fashion obsessives, the religious fanatics, the vegans, the sports watchers, the creationists, the smokers, the scientifically illiterate, the homeopaths, leaving, ideally, the perfect partner or, realistically, a manageable short list of candidates.

“Don?” It was Julie, still on the line. “When do you want to get together?”

ings had changed. Priorities had shifted. “It’s not possible,” I said. “My schedule is full.”

I was going to need all available time for the new project.

e Wife Project.

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