Sunday, December 21, 2014

But karma doesn't work like that!

Much has been said about Satya Nadella’s answer in an interview in October.
What do I have to write? I’m not sure.

At the end of a lively interview on stage at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing Conference in Phoenix, Maria Klawe (Harvey Mudd College President and Board Member at Microsoft) asked Satya Nadella (CEO of Microsoft) what his advice is for women who were not comfortable with asking for a raise or promotion or putting themselves up for opportunities.

(From the 2014 Grace Hopper Celebration website)

In response, Nadella remembered Mike Maples, who was President of Microsoft, who said how all human resource systems were ‘long term efficient and short term inefficient.’ He continued -
It’s not about asking for the raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along…  And that, I think might be one of the additional superpowers that quite frankly women who don’t ask for a raise have. Because that’s good karma. It’ll come back because somebody’s going to know ‘that’s the kind of person that I want to trust. That’s the kind of person I want to really give more responsibility to.’ And in the long term efficiency, things catch up. And I wonder… And I’m not saying that’s the only approach.
I wonder whether taking the long-term helps solve for what might be perceived as this uncomfortable thing of ‘hey, am I getting paid right? Am I getting rewarded right?’ Because reality is your best work is not followed with your best rewards. Your best work then has impact, people recognize it and then you get the rewards so you have to somehow think that through, I think.

Klawe said that this answer was one issue she disagrees with Nadella. She said that she always felt uncomfortable asking things for herself, and was much better at rewarding people who work for her. 

Naturally, right away there was much disagreement with Nadella's answer in the media. (He later sent a memo to his company with a correction. It also said "...If you think you deserve a raise, you should just ask.")

Some thoughts from when I was in tech workforce-

One should be able to bring up the issue of raise or pay scale for fair review at any time. We use our judgment, right?

While equal pay for equal work is central, it is also about being given equal opportunities for accessing similar quality of work, for equal qualifications at the same job grade. (This was somehow difficult on so many levels).
And it is about being judged and respected in an equal way. Or we won’t even get to the point of having faith in ourselves to clear doubts about fair pay or opportunity. 
All this with the background of likely coming from unequal foundational playing-fields and while likely navigating such fields outside of work.

Maybe now there are bigger pockets in industry which are fair? Where all good things can eventually add up? 
But even in such pockets of fairness, personal dispositions vary and company cultures vary. An individual requesting a pay review or not asking, are still choices. One should be able to make this choice without automatic tags of sainthood or aggressor for either gender. Which brings us to the karma.

(Also, the observations “long term efficient, short-term inefficient” and “best work is not followed by your best rewards” are true in many areas? Too much inefficiency in the short term (or long term) can't be good in any system).

Then the karma. Ah, the karma. Karma doesn’t work like that! At least not the way I understand. I see didn't see anyone write about this. 

Karma by itself has no quality, good or bad (contrary to generally accepted views and popular use).

Say if you're plodding along and think- Oh, I’m doing good work. Poof. The karma value can be gone (because you claimed it as good. It is about you)
But then, what if one thinks while working- Oh, what I’m doing isn’t good at all. I’m being bad.
Will the karma value still disappear? 
It depends, says core philosophy (does not depend on gender. Or race or age or monies or intellect or species.. the field is nicely level).

We can’t rely on a karma positive feedback loop to touch us. We shouldn’t rely on something whose mechanism of cause and effect, if any, isn’t easily tangible. So it seems best to do our work, being who we are. While trying to be fair and honest to ourselves and our world, in increasing degrees as we grow older. This I believe is a simple age-old formula! 

But what is tangible is inequality. It is still present in varying degrees in many aspects, in the lives of one-half of us. (Also for the many marginalized). 

What happened as an unforeseen result of the interview was the heated discussions brought to harsh light of reality the gaps and blocks in pay-equality, once again. Maybe something good will come out of this. Maybe it was good karma.


Note: The video of the interesting interview is here. It starts at 48 mins and this conversation is at about 1 hr:34 mins.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Stanford Autism Research Program's Annual Update, 2014

Stanford University's Autism Research Program's 7th Annual Autism Spectrum Disorders Update was held on the 19th of April earlier this year.

Even though I have been keeping up with the general science online, this was the first science-based autism conference/meeting I’ve been to in all the 8+ years of our autism journey. So I would like to write about what was shared at the meeting, even though it was a few months ago.

A show of hands showed about 80% of attendees was parents. The man sitting next to me opened a hesitant conversation. He was in his late 20’s. He said he was representing his sister.

            I have a 3 three year old nephew. He has autism.
My sister can’t come because she has to take care of him after he comes back from special-preschool. Things have to be done in a specific way at home and only she seems to get it right.  

He became serious.
I’m making sure I listen carefully so I can report back to her.


The first talk was by Elizabeth Langeson, PsyD, from UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. She presented about “Fostering Social Connections for Young People with Autism Spectrum Disorder: The PEERS Social Skills Program”

Peer rejected (by teasing and bullying) and socially neglected (isolated and withdrawn) individuals with ASD were in a small group study.  There were given didactic lessons, role-play demonstrations, exercises and homework, along with caregiver coaching.

Some of the role-play conversational training skills were shown by video. For example, a young person with autism was shown trying to enter a group conversation. An analysis of how it went, what went right and what went wrong was given.

The clinic tracked the results of responsiveness. It did a follow up at 14 weeks and a long term follow up at 1-5 years. The group size was 82 and had high functioning, verbal young adults as participants. Social skills improved. Problem behaviors were found to decrease. The clinic is continuing such studies with preschoolers and high-functioning adolescents, using a Virtual Coach and similar programs.

(Something that struck me- Earlier in the same month the CDC released new Autism Rates data. Some experts commented in news reports that rising rates were from very high-functioning individuals, whose parents are seeking a diagnosis only because of increased awareness in order to get more resources. However, these videos showed individuals seemingly within the same sub-bracket of autism having clinical level difficulty in functioning at a basic level in society)


“Is Brain Circuitry in People with Autism Spectrum Disorder Connected Differently?” was the title of the talk by Lucina Uddin, PhD, from the University of Miami.

(I became restless -this subject is difficult for me.
Very soon she said- We are starting to learn new things every year how the brain works. I felt much relief and gratitude over this)

Prof. Uddin spoke about how there isn’t just one area of connectivity in the brain. From my notes: There are different kinds of connectivity. There is functional connectivity, effective connectivity and structural connectivity. Which can be looked at by fMRI and DTI techniques. In general, adults show greater functional and structural connectivity.

In autism, studies show both under and over connectivity. In high-functioning population, there is over-connectivity as children but can normalize as adults. There can be mixed patterns within areas even as children and under-connectivity as adults. The picture isn’t clear.

An interesting concept of “salience network” was presented. It is a brain diagnostic measure of different centers in the brain which can predict with 70% accuracy the symptom severity and also, I believe as to who will respond to treatment. In general, autism was described as a ‘Neurodevelopmental disorder of brain connectivity’ which impacts social, language and sensorimotor functions.


Just as I was getting up for the breakout session, I paused to answer a question by a woman sitting ahead of me at the table we shared.  She was curious about Oxytocin. I happened to know a little. But one question led to another.

She has a daughter, 12, autism. There are issues with school.

They don’t tell me everything. They don’t like me to come to school. They are always hiding something. They are so hostile. She gave details.

She asked, How about your child?

Her eyes cautiously widened when I told her I homeschool. I often get that reaction. So many parents wish to homeschool their child with autism because they are dissatisfied with schools.

She got it. She got it right away! He is a different boy when he types, right? A TOTALLY DIFFERENT BOY?

My daughter is like that when she paints.  It is like a… she held her breath and her face intensified... it like a... Picasso, she said, opening her arms out wide and holding them out for a while, her head tilted slightly backwards.

She likes to draw all the time so the school staff told us to not let her draw so can learn to do other things.

Oh no, I protested, despite myself. If she is good at that, that is her strength. Don’t take it away. Maybe you can find a way for her learn other things through her art. Her eyes froze on me for a while.

She continued. By 8 AM I am like arghhhhhh I can’t wait for her to leave.

Since she was born, I’ve taken care of her. 24/7. I am a cook. I put my love in my cooking. I taught her to cook. Now she bakes all day. She won’t stop.

It is like a knot. Everything is there, but there is this knot. Her face pained. She pinched her tummy and modeled a knot. If you pull this way or that, it will only tighten. That’s why I am not sure of medicines. They only shift and pull in some other way. I prefer to give whatever I can through my cooking.  I am a good cook.

I said- Yes, true, we have to be very careful what we give our kids.

You are very lucky you have other children to play with your daughter

She smiled. She is happiest when she is with them. She draws out for them.


There were two breakout sessions- One was about Oxytocin and Vasopressin as Therapeutics and the other was Brain Imaging.

I was late to the break session on Brain Imaging. It had already started.

Prof. Antonio Hardan, MD, from Stanford University was at the end of his presentation and the discussion had already started. Many in the audience were interested in his previous work, in which NAC (N- Acetyl Cysteine) was used as a therapeutic as a glutamatergic modulator and antioxidant in a randomized controlled pilot trial. I believe his talk was about his newer work but the audience was interested in the previous NAC work. 

(It is known that glutathione is low in bodies of people with autism. NAC is a precursor to glutathione and is stable)

One lady in the audience said how her son stopped perseverating on closing and opening doors after the treatment. The treatment involves taking NAC in a sequence of dosages to a target value. The professor mentioned that the results showed higher benefit to people hit harder with autism. 
(I didn’t get to ask my question if he saw children who can’t tolerate NAC, like my son.)

Dr. Uddin talked about Brain Imaging. She discussed more details of her talk and of the Salience Network. She also talked of some studies done where children with autism demonstrated higher scores in mathematics compared to normal children. She also mentioned a couple of anomalies, I remember being very struck by them during the talk, though I forgot the exact details.

There was mention of the methodical process of scientific research and progress. Both Dr. Uddin and Prof. Hardin mentioned (informally) about completing analyses from collected data, the resources and funding for research.

A slide from Dr. Uddin's talk


The lobby had many informative posters and booklets from various research groups. Graduate students were at the stations answering questions and taking down the names of those who volunteered their children for various studies. One or two vendors had stalls. Autism Speaks had a stall.

A poster for a clinical trail


I picked my lunch of a mozzarella cheese + tomato sandwich and a salad and found a sunny spot in the big backyard full of chatting people. A lady wandered close to me, plate in hand. She sat down close to me.

She looked pensive. She wanted to talk.

I am a teacher, she said. I am a special education teacher. I asked her which school district. She told me. I have a class of children in the middle of the spectrum in age group 8-12.
(She wasn’t in our home school district)

She talked slowly. She had a lot to say. What do they expect? Why can’t they see?

She was very frustrated with parents.  (I trembled a little, not quite sure if she was mistaking me for a professional attendee).  

These children, they are not going to… she paused, in exasperation. But the parents… are never satisfied. They want the child to do this and that. We talk, when we teachers talk, we… she exhaled in disdain.

Then she became anguished. I am so stressed all the time. I can’t relax. I can’t sleep. I am tense all the time. My husband says, why do you want to work like this? Quit. She paused.

Now, you tell me. Maybe you can tell me. What are the parents thinking? What do they want?

I was silent for a while.

I will guess.
Parents see a potential in their children with autism. They want to tap into it. They have hope. They need help. They are shown the school.
Where ever they go, the parents are shown the school. So they ask. It is in their interest to ask if you are doing enough and it is in the self-interest of a school-system to push back. A teacher and the parent are at the interface of this stress.

The real problem is autism is not fully understood. In the same school system some children thrive and some don’t.

She went inside her thoughts.

(Later it occurred to me that the stress as I called it is pervasive. It stems from the fact that the help a child with autism receives from school is negotiable and varies with the ability and means of a parent to advocate)


Post lunch, the first talk was about “Eye Gaze and Eye Contact, and if ASD children are Different” by Michael Frank, PhD, Stanford University.

I didn’t take many notes in the afternoon, I was relying on getting a handout but somehow that didn’t happen. So I’m writing from memory.

There were some very interesting experiments with a camera mounted at eye level of babies. We saw how their visual perspective changes as they grow- from a crawling stage to a walking stage. Then there were videos of children- where, when the aide working with the child used a small hand gesture to help track the child’s eye gaze to an activity, the success rate of answers increased.

(It was very interesting because visual tracking is an issue for many in the spectrum. I realized that I instinctively use home-made techniques to help my son’s visual field during activities, or else he will naturally focus on a smaller field)


Challenges and Successes of a Student on the Autism Spectrum at a Four Year University” was a talk by Paul Griffin, B.A. His talk brought tears to many and a standing ovation from the audience.

Paul Griffin was a self-contained special day class in school and took all college prep classes. He got A’s and B’s in High School. Took extracurricular activities, like a horse riding competition. Applied to University of California in Santa Barbara. A lot of people discouraged him, saying, no you won’t be able to do this. He had assistance with the application and had accommodations for ACT and SAT II subject tests. He was accepted in 2007. The Koegel Autism Center set up services such as one-on-one aide, peer mentors and study buddies. The disabled students program helped set up accommodations such as a note taker and with test taking.

He graduated in 2012 with a major in Sociology. Through his college he kept up skills (being on time, cooking and a good work ethic), dealt with loneliness, anxiety and grades. He learned self-management and lived on-campus from the 3rd to 5th years.

He now lives with a friend in a shared townhouse and works in marketing at a small mortgage company near his home town. He said there is a need for more support at colleges for people with ASD and it is critical to have an environment where there is plenty of support and it makes all the difference.

The people with questions from the audience lined up and the line did not end. One question was

Are you ever heart-broken?
Answer: People say that people with autism have no empathy. People with autism feel things much more.

A question was for his mother. She said I knew he was bright. I never let anyone tell me he was not capable


The next Break Out Sessions were Genetics in Autism and Resources for College Students with ASD. I chose to go to the Genetics session.

It was by Joachim Hallmayer, MD, David Hong, MD and Ruth O’Hara, PhD, all from Stanford University.  I missed the part of talk of Prof. Hallmayer probably because of talking to a student with a poster. The session room was full. Prof. Hong spoke next and there was a handout.

From Autism Twin Studies about 35-40% of autism was found to be of genetic cause and 60-65% of environmental cause. Cause of autism is largely unknown, with likely several different partial causes and combinations and is associated with many other genetic syndromes. He talked about a model that defines the risk for siblings. And about the tests now available for detecting variations in DNA. Tests are able to find a genetic “cause” in ~ 10-15% of cases with ASDs with associated intellectual disability. This is less likely if otherwise healthy with no family history.

Prof. O’Hara spoke about the environmental factors and studies. Again, heritability was about 37% and environmental reasons at about 68%. Pregnancy factors, delivery factors, baby with adverse conditions were mentioned. For example, age, eclampsia, hypoxia etc., have been found to have an effect. However she had a note of caution with studies which are ‘retrospective studies’ but get a lot of attention in the media.

Environmental toxins such as chlorinated toxins, proximity to traffic, plastics, pesticides and heavy metals were mentioned. Bioinformatics may be useful in determining if an association is real.

(I asked a question about Angelman Syndrome and Autism. Prof. Hong replied that they are related sub-systems of genetic pathways (or I understood it like that). The context changed so I didn’t get to ask- But, why does it fluctuate? Why does it disappear and appear? (the tendency to be unable to stop laughing))


That was the last of the day long session. I walked out to meet my son and husband who came to pick me up. We walked around in the tall eucalyptus trees waving their long arms near University Drive for a while and then went home.

Anomalies. Walking out into the lobby and at home I found myself thinking about anomalies in autism. My tired brain wouldn’t stop. Do the anomalies hold the key to an underlying pattern or are they just noise?
Why otherwise unremarkable autism symptoms fluctuate in some? Like the laughing. Another is when there is a fever. Autism symptoms significantly decrease in some when there is even a mild fever.


Mid-session, a parent from the board of Stanford’s Autism Research Center gave a short speech. He spoke about his son, of age 12. He spoke how challenging and rewarding it is to love and live with a person who sees the world very differently that you do. He said that the Center needs funds. This day-long conference was not fully covered solely by the registration fees and depends on donations.

If you would like to donate, here is the link

Stipa Pulchra in the native plant garden of the building

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Crater Lake

In August of 1994, we went to see the spectacular Crater Lake in Oregon. The trip became memorable for another unexpected, spectacular reason…

I finished up my lab work on a Friday evening, drove to our small Pennsylvania town airport (4 doors for gates in a big room) and flew to O’Hare. Where S joined me from his work and we took a flight to Portland. All through employee standby travel. For 3, 4 years this was almost a routine on some weekends for us, with different destinations.

We reached Crater Lake late on the next day. First we set up camp - it was our first camping trip in the great American outdoors! The next day we went to the lake. The bluest of blue, clearest of clear, caldera lake nestled in the rugged volcanic mountains. From any angle it was a feast for the eyes. A wonder in its sheer existence. Sacred for the native Klamath Indians.
I don’t remember if we hiked down to the lake, maybe we did. We boated in the waters. Ash got into everything and came back with us.

But first, very excitedly, we found our spot in the tree rustic camp site and set up our cozy looking tent. It was easy. We spread out the camping cookery items we had bought for the trip on the table. Only, we didn’t have anything to cook with. We forgot about that. So it required a trip to the small camp store. We also bought 2 packs of firewood. What is a camp without a campfire?

Dusk approached. We didn’t realize how fast. Soon, I was cooking in the dark. S was with his favorite activity – the making and maintaining a camp fire. The cute camp lantern we bought the weekend before and with which I walked around in the apartment feeling like a pioneer was dwarfed by the blanket of darkness. I could not see anything that was a few inches away from the lantern!

The cooking failed. The rice wouldn’t cook. The water wouldn’t boil. The veggies wouldn’t saute. I remembered ruefully the tables full of food that neighboring camps had and cleaned up before sunset. One lesson learnt. At least, the fire roared. Until it got very big and one arm came out and burnt S’s eyelash tips.  He was sitting too close, tending the fire. All this didn’t dampen our enthusiasm. Just like the long drive from Portland (which was rather scary close to Crater Lake).


Maybe some of it was the goodwill karma we felt we were owed (not that karma really works like that). On the long road in the wide open skies from the friendly Portland, we saw a boy, of about 9 years, standing on the shoulder with a handwritten sign Out of Gas. An adult was with a beat-up truck a little ahead. We passed them, and after talking about it we took an exit, a turn into the right direction and parked on the shoulder. They were out of gas. We found the nearest gas station, bought a portable container and brought them gas. They were so grateful, speaking more through their shy country demeanor. I believe we still have the red fuel-safe container somewhere in our garage.

Oh you have to be careful with the dinner remains and how you dispose of the water, one lady said to us at the common taps, with concerned gravity. We must have given her a blank look so she explained- if grizzly bears smell the food they will come to the camp at night.
Grizzly bears will come at night- these words began to sink into me in the darkness. So after we carefully disposed of everything in a bear-safe way, I went back to the tent a little subdued. S took care of the dish washing in the ice cold water.


So we really didn’t know anything about camping in the wilderness. Going to national parks or camping was not something we grew up with or what our friends did. But it was something that interested us. The internet was there but there was no information in it, like now. The lady was nice, she could have been rude. I’m not sure if the times were like that, people were nicer then, anyway she was nice to us because we didn’t know and also, we were young.

Night settled in. We watched the fire till it died down and settled for sleep. By then all the other camps became quiet. Very soon we realized something was wrong. It was very cold. Extremely cold. We had no idea it could get this cold on a summer night in the mountains here. We had only one sleeping bag, a sheet and two small camp pillows for both of us. No jackets or coats even. We did not doubt not having a warm night.

It was awful. Body shivering, bone chilling cold. Outside, it was so dark; we could not even see our hands. We stumbled to the car, turned it on and with it, the heat. Such sweet comfort it was. Sleep came. Then S said maybe it is not a good idea to stay in one place with the car running so he drove slowly (it hadn’t occurred to us that we might be disturbing the peace). No one complained though.

We left the camp site, drove around, parked here and there and caught bits of sleep. If we turned off the car, the miserable cold rapidly seeped in. Ours was the only car on the road, the car lights were the only lights. We were the only moving creatures on the face of the earth. When we stopped, we turned the lights off, with the engine running for the heat.

One such spot was on a hill top, it was a clearing of some sort, where there was no tree cover. By chance I looked up and… and… was astonished to my core. The Milky Way.

In the moonless, cloudless sky, the Milky Way stretched from horizon to horizon in full splendor. Dazzling, glittering, still and… just there.  
I had only heard of the Milky Way. I had never imagined the magnificence. We both were shocked. We stood outside, heads turned up, forgetting the cold.
It was one of those things where you lose yourself in something. The whole middle of the black sky was lit up. Parts of the arm were dense star-clouds. Each of the countless stars was twinkling. I could have reached out and touched a star.

It was so spectacular, we felt insignificant as ourselves. It was so spectacular, we felt significant because we were a part of it. And to imagine that this sight, this perspective was a given thing in lives of our ancestors, until electricity. Surely without daily darkness we are missing something.

I could have stayed there all night. But I began to imagine grizzly bears behind the starlit distant trees. They will come at night. I got back to the safety of the car despite all entreaties of S. 


Thursday, August 28, 2014

A Whale Watching Trip

(an account of a whale watching trip with our son)

We went on a small boat trip on one weekend early in August. We hoped to see some whales. Word was that unusual numbers of anchovies in the Monterey Bay were attracting unusual numbers of ocean life – from birds to dolphins to whales. To visit, feast and frolic. This in turn was attracting unusual numbers of whale watchers.

There were two parts to deciding to go. One was making peace (again) about watching wildlife from a boat.  Second was if our son, M (11), would be able to handle a long boat trip with an unpredictable agenda. Previously on smaller boat rides he sat quietly in his life-vest, without a smile anywhere and was very relieved when the ride was over. And back when he was a baby, he was confused as to why he couldn’t get into the water and wriggled in my arms, trying to dip his fingers into the water.
But much water has crossed under the bridge since then.

We chose a smallish boat from the small town of Moss Landing (pop. 204). There were 20-25 people waiting at the dock. The boat was late by ½ hour. I put on my sea-sickness band and took one to my son.

He has special needs. He will need some time to put on the band, I said. The young man dispensing the bands agreed amiably. It took a few minutes for the husband and me to convince our son to try it on.

All this time, I felt the presence of a man, a fellow passenger standing behind us, sort of disapproving something about our interactions. He didn’t know that a person can have sensory difficulty to accept something new on his skin.
I often face that. Most likely the man did not know that M has autism. It was not apparent to him (to some it is not apparent and to some, it is). Also, some symptoms tend to fluctuate. 

Earlier, I had shown M pictures from the website of the boat trip and discussed the flow, the expectations. How it will begin and when it will end. What the main purpose was. I asked if he wanted to go. He said he wanted to. However, I could sense some anticipation anxiety in him on our car ride there. 
I had also discussed what to expect during the ride with the owner of the boat, who gave some helpful suggestions. 


Then just like that, the time came and we were at the steps to the boat. I went up the steps.
But the idea is different from actual experience. M hesitated. The steps were moving. 

I heard a small no 

It is okay, I explained, from the other side. It moves a little because it is on water. Hold my hand. no...

I quickly looked at the line behind him and his father. The lady next in line kept a small distance and was smiling in understanding. Phew. The boat guide was patient. Phew.

(I had expected this, M's hesitation, when he actually has to get onto the boat. It also happens when we have to board a plane. He needs a few seconds where perhaps he has to accept for himself the change in state)

It’s not that he is saying - No, I don’t want to go. It could be (and most likely is) No, not yet. No, I’m not quite sure I can do this. But he doesn’t have these verbal strings of words at his disposal on the spur.

I waited and offered my hand again. You’ll be fine once you cross over the steps. We’ll sit over there on that bench. Then just like that, M came over.  The three of us settled on a on a bench.

The boat took off even as we were fitting a requisite life vest on him. For a while M was fearful. He held on tightly to his father or to me. A sudden surge in new, raw sensations is so difficult for him. It adds a range of extra unpredictability to a body that processes sensory inputs differently. It took 10-15 minutes for him to get over the fear and give relaxation a chance.


Soon we were at the side of the boat, watching the water. Our eyes  glued to the water. It’s just the motion of the boat, I further said. The waves go up and down and so the boat goes up and down. He smiled. If you stand with your feet apart, you’ll be stable. He tried that.
Interesting, how a boy who can spin like a top on a spinning-trapeze and casually come back to a graceful standing position without feeling any dizziness- can find this experience unsettling.

Humpback whales showed up. Moving freely in the waters. They didn’t jump out of the water but were swimming in a relaxed pace. To spot the squirt, then to see the enormous body come out, and then to see the tail roll over – was out of this world. Actually we could tell there was a whale around somewhere by the number of boats waiting in a big circle. It felt like a flexed intrusion into peaceful whale habitat and made me uncomfortable.

I went back to our bench. Is your son feeling sick? A woman sitting next to me slowly asked.

M was standing close to his father, still unsure in his skin and err… a little bundled up (by me). 

After a pause I said- He has autism

She stared back for a few seconds as expression drained from her eyes. She took a breath.  Is he liking the boat?

I think so

It is so good of you both to bring him, she said warmly.

I smiled. I didn’t know what to say. We chatted some more.

She was part of a big connected party which was more than half of the boat. We met civility and understanding from the co-passengers we interacted with. They understood M’s needs and expression and let that go into the background. Also there were no extra challenges thrown up from any side.

The only challenges were that he met by himself- the sound and vibrations of the boat being perceived differently by him, his vestibular and proprioceptive systems making his balancing and regulation different, not having all the tools of communication at his disposal even as newer demands were placed on him, resisting the sensory call of the water, the list goes on. He integrated them and found a way to put them in the background and be with the ride. 
He didn’t feel like typing. Too much was going on and his energies were grouped up in the experience.


Lo and behold, the up and down motion started to make me feel nauseous. I had been on boats before and had never felt this. It was awkward. I found our seat while M, now fully adjusted and having un-bundled himself, was freely going about the boat with his father. They sat at the side of the boat with other passengers and watched the whales. He loved the patterns the boat made in the waters.  He wasn’t looking for the boat ride to end.

Some playful dolphins and naughty sea otters came to show off. We saw at least two floating pods of sea lions. Then we saw a spotted whale which apparently has been coming to this bay for years. It has some spots from a collision with a tuna fish boat, 20 years ago. The boat we were on had a driver, and a guide who was giving many details of the types and features of the whales we were seeing but I was drifting in and out.

After what seemed to be a long time I asked, What’s the time? Because of that query I found out that we were on a 4-hr long trip! When I booked, I thought, I was sure, I was booking a 2-hr trip.

I made a mistake. I am careful with these details and yet somehow, I made a mistake. We were now ~3 hours into the trip. I was so relieved that I came to know of this in the last hour. I would have had some panic if I had come to know in the first hour. I didn’t pack lunch, I packed only some snacks and we were well past lunchtime. Then I knew why the baskets of others had so much good looking food!

No wonder it seemed like a long time on the boat. I was tired but M and his father seemed alright. It was a bit cloudy so we weren’t out in the sun and that helped. I noticed that the boat switched gears, rode fast and went up north.

Here the whales surfaced very close to the boat, on both sides. Mums and calves and friends. With them came the inevitable flattened water showing the shape of the whale that dived in. Like a mysterious mirror into another world.  Like fools we kept watching the same spot while the whales surfaced back elsewhere, even if they did. It was as if the boat was surrounded by whales. There weren’t other boats around and it didn’t seem like any intrusion, the whales easily outnumbered the boat and didn’t bother about us. I’m sure there were mostly humpback whales, not that it mattered to me or us. Wherever I looked I could spot a spout, then an inevitable whale or two or three. It was simply unreal.

I zoned out of the voices, the announcements and excitement. Just watched. A magnificent life form in its magnificent home. Such easy joy in its flight. In living. Is this for real? Is this world for real? If it is, the only thing that mattered seemed to be joy, the joy of living. Even now when I close my eyes that’s what I see- I see whales coming out of the vast gray ocean, diving back in and the tail flipping over.

Did he have a good time? A voice asked as we were leaving the boat. She was the lady waiting in line behind us when we were getting in. Another man come forward and offered a earnest hand when M was looking for a foothold on the moving steps (he didn’t seem to need it).

Later back at home in the quiet of our study, M typed a small something, after I suggested the title (in a 2-word poetic form that his teacher had asked him to experiment with over the summer).


Note. since this ride, M has been on smaller paddle boats on local lakes a few times and is loving the boating. Each time his adjustment period to the movement of the boat is getting shorter...