My Grown Son And The Language Of Autism, A Christmas Tale

He's laughing and blushing, but he's not having any of this Christmas singing stuff. No way!

The lights of Christmas ahead
The lights of Christmas ahead
Robert Hughes

At Christmastime in our house, the Holiday Prohibitions go into effect. Recently, I made the mistake of meekly testing a rule, almost whispering, "Hark the herald angels sing / Glory to the . . . "

"No newborn king today!" my 32-year-old autistic son shouts from across the living room, smiling but wary.

"Peace on Earth and mercy . . . " I continue, louder now, more out of mischief than anything else. And Walker — all 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds of him — lunges across the room, puts his hand under my chin and shouts, "No mild today!" He's laughing and blushing, his face lit up with a grin. But he's not having any of this Christmas singing stuff. No way!

So much about Walker is right here in this almost-conversation: He loves me and likes the teasing. He speaks, a little, but not with normal phrasing, and certainly delivers no "opinions' as we normally think of them. He's vigilant, responding instantly to whatever is happening, especially anything his father does. He knows his Christmas carols and, in fact, could finish any line of any one of them. And known to me and his mother but not to many others, he would love to sing with his dad, except he would find the experience to be so emotionally momentous, to cause such a high-in-the-Richter-scale shaking of the soul, that it could not be borne.

He can seem like a huge toddler sometimes, demanding close attention moment to moment. Outdoors, he might run into the street if I'm not holding his hand. In a grocery store, he might grab a fistful of nuts and jam them into his mouth. And anywhere at all, he's likely to startle the citizenry by bellowing, "I want pen!," his signal to me to write our agenda for the next few hours on one of the note cards I keep in my pocket. His mother and I have never taken him on a plane, mainly to avoid turning up on the nightly news.

He is also a dazzlingly handsome and charming man.

This seeming toddlerhood is extra-ironic, for he is also a dazzlingly handsome and charming man. In a still photograph, he looks like a world-beater from central casting. Looking at him as he sits on our couch, legs crossed, head resting on his hand, I can have microsecond "my son the neurosurgeon" fantasies.

And get, momentarily anyway, pretty grim.

When he was an actual toddler, he was the ultimate Christmas kid. One moment stands out. At a holiday party, Walker and I performed "Winter Wonderland" loudly and clearly and proudly. But as he grew older and low-functioning autism calcified around his life, he spoke less and sang less. Unable to join in the family chatter, he had to take in all the music, smells, lights, color and beauty of the season while silently battling whatever it is in his head that distracts him from our "normal" world. When young, he couldn't see his favorite holiday films often enough; now most Christmases they get the "Nomoviestoday!" treatment.

Photo: Kristy Hom

Every day, I see how the ability to say what's on his mind would protect him a bit from his many fears, yes, but also from what looks like a kind of uncontainable hyper-joy. Robert Graves got it right in his poem "The Cool Web." When we're very young and not talking yet, he says, the world is sheer magic. Then words and sentences step in to tamp the ecstasy down: "There's a cool web of language winds us in / Retreat from too much joy or too much fear."

This is why Ellen and I never give up on the language quest with him, and why he never gives up, either. The ability to make simple remarks about what's on his mind - "This place is too noisy, Dad. Could we leave?" or "Let's get out of the house and see a movie" or even "Are you kidding? "National Lampoon Christmas' again?" - would expand his life immeasurably.

But, contrary to so much written about autism, his mother and I know him to be empathetic, intelligent and blessed with a knack for signaling the people in his life that he loves them. He doesn't let the maddening absence of sentences get in his way.

So when his "No mild today!" comes and he blushes and laughs and grins, I may not get the duet performance I want, the bonding of father and son in a Hollywood holiday film. But his message comes through to me with the clarity of church bells on Christmas morning: "Yes, I remember singing that one, Dad. What fun we had! It's just too much for me to take in right now, but thanks for reminding me of it."

It's not "conversation," but for me, in the truest and warmest and liveliest sense, it's more than enough.

Hughes is the author of "Walker Finds a Way: Running Into the Adult World with Autism."

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At the Mango Festival held in Aswan, Egypt

Nada Arafat

ISMAILIA – Every year during the month of July, crowds gather in the mango farms of Ismailia, in northeastern Egypt, to pick the delectable summer fruit during its relatively short harvest season. But this year, as a result of erratic weather patterns throughout March and April, the usual bountiful mango harvest was severely affected with farmers witnessing a precipitous drop in yield. Some 300,000 farms saw an 80% decrease in productivity, leading to a supply shortage in the market and a corresponding 40% increase in the price of mangoes.

The effects of these climate fluctuations could have been mitigated by farmers, yet according to experts who spoke to Mada Masr, the agriculture minister failed to play a role in raising awareness among farmers and in providing agricultural guidance services.

Heatwaves kill crops

Mangoes are highly sensitive to changes in temperature. For germination to occur, the ideal temperature should be between 10 °C at night and 28 °C during the day, according to agricultural consultants. In Egypt, this weather pattern usually occurs in February. Mango trees then flower and the flowers turn into fruits that take 40 days to grow and be ready for harvest, according to Karam Suleiman, an agricultural engineer.

This year, however, according to mango farmers in Ismailia who spoke to Mada Masr, the beginning of the winter farming season experienced a sudden heatwave followed by another heatwave at the end of March. In both March and April, the temperature dipped to as low as 5 °C at night and as high as 25 °C during the day. Due to these erratic weather fluctuations, the mango flowers that develop into fruit fell before they could mature.

The typical average mango yield from one feddan (approx 1.03 acres or 0.40 hectares) ranges between 6 to 8 tons. This year however, the yield per feddan averaged between just 1 to 2 tons, according to several sources.

Frozen mango suppliers multiply purchases

A farm owner in Al-Tal al-Kebir on the Ismailia Desert Road, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, said that his farm produced approximately 35 tons of mangoes last year, whereas this year his yield did not exceed 4 tons. He added that many farmers in the surrounding area, which is famous for mango cultivation, experienced the same steep declines in yield.

The limited mango yield and the subsequent hike in prices has also prompted frozen mango suppliers to multiply their purchases from farms in order to capitalize and sell them next year at an even higher price, according to Ali Saqr, an agricultural engineer in a fruit export company, along with a number of other farm owners who spoke to Mada Masr. Mangos can stay frozen for up to two years.

Khaled Eweis, who buys mangoes and stores them in rented freezers then later sells the frozen mangoes to juice and dessert shops, explained to Mada Masr that juice shops usually use the Zebdia variety of mangoes, whereas dessert shops use Keitt mangoes. The latter is expected to be priced at 25 Egyptian pounds ($1.5) this year after having been sold for half the price at the same time last year.

Last year, Eweis bought Zebdia mangoes for 10–12 Egyptian pounds ($0.6–$0.7) per kilo then resold them for 16 ($1) after freezing them. This year, the Zebdia prices ranged from 17–21 ($1–$1.30) per kilo, and Eweis expects that the price after freezing will reach as high as 25 ($1.5).

Photo of an Egyptian man shouldering a basket full of mangoes

The typical average mango yield from one feddan (approx 1.03 acres) ranges between 6 to 8 tons


Threat to water security

This is not the first time that mango production has been hit hard as a result of fluctuating weather patterns. A similar crisis in the mango harvest took place in 2018, and other crops, such as olives, potatoes, wheat, rice and cotton, have also been adversely affected over the last few years, according to Mohamed Fahem, the head of the government Climate Change Information Center. And human-induced changes to global weather patterns as a result of climate change point to increased agricultural challenges in the future.

The deadly heat waves, fires, hurricanes and other extreme weather events that have dominated headlines in recent years will only become more frequent in the coming decades, according to a United Nations report on climate change released in August. In its sixth assessment report, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change called human-induced changes to global climate systems "unprecedented." While the report calls for drastic cuts to the global emission of greenhouse gases, much of the effects of climate change are already locked in for decades to come.

Among the areas most vulnerable to climate change is agriculture. A 2018 report titled Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Changes in Egypt found that climate change can have drastic effects on agriculture through changes in temperature, rainfall, CO2 levels and solar radiation. Meanwhile, a 2020 European Union report also found that climate change will pose a threat to global food production in the medium to long-term through projected changes in daily temperature, precipitation, wind, relative humidity and global radiation.

According to various studies, climate change gradually reduces the duration of spring, autumn and winter, which in turn affects the crops that are cultivated during those seasons. In Egypt in particular, the country's agricultural crop map will likely change as a result of a prolonged summer season, according to a study by former Agriculture Minister Ayman Abou Hadid, published in 2010 when he was heading the Center for Agricultural Studies. The study predicted that grain cultivation will gradually move north from Upper Egypt due to increases in winter temperatures, though it did not give a projected timeframe.

Cold and heat waves

Climate change also increases salinity levels in soil due to rising sea levels, which in turn renders the soil only suitable for crops that can handle high salinity yet still require intensive irrigation to mitigate the salinity levels. At the same time, Egypt is currently facing a threat to its water security due to the changes in rain patterns and droughts as well as the potential effects of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

According to Fahim, the increased cold and heat waves Egypt has experienced has led to the emergence of new, mutated varieties of pests and fungal diseases that are resistant to chemicals. For example, in 2018, aphids and whiteflies spread due to the shortened winter season, and the accumulation of these pests led to huge losses in potato and cotton yields. Meanwhile, palm trees were harmed due to the appearance of red palm weevils.

How farmers counter mango losses

The severe losses in the 2021 mango yield were hard to avoid, but is there a way to counter them?

Karam Suleiman, an agricultural engineer, believes that better methods of agriculture, irrigation and fertilization, along with raising awareness among farmers about the dangers of climate change and how to monitor weather fluctuations could succeed in mitigating such outcomes.

However, Egypt appears currently incapable of providing sufficient safety networks to farmers in order to enable them to confront the effects of climate change.

An example of this is apparent in the failure to enforce mechanisms for warning farmers about potential difficulties in upcoming farming seasons. In June, a report by the Center for Agricultural Studies warned about a decline of as much as 85% in the productivity of farms in Ismailia, where mangoes are mainly cultivated, as well as farms in Sharqiya, Suez and Beheira, due to climate change. However, this report only reached about 13 farmers and owners of mango farms, according to agricultural sources who spoke to Mada Masr.

Ahmed Asal, a mango farmer in Qantara in Ismailia, told Mada Masr that there has been no guidance from authorities in helping farmers understand climate change and how to respond to it. "No one told us what to do and we never received any compensation for our losses," Asal said.

Photo of a hand picking a mango from the tree in Egypt

Mangoes are highly sensitive to changes in temperature

Ahmed Gomaa/Xinhua/ZUMA

Agriculture engineers must become climate engineers

Agricultural guidance is a service offered by the Agriculture Ministry to raise awareness and educate farmers about all aspects of farming. The service is usually provided through agricultural engineers who are based in the agricultural cooperatives that exist in every city and town.

Fahim, the head of the Climate Change Information Center, works to play a similar role through his Facebook page and, at times, on various TV channels and newspapers, by raising awareness about weather fluctuations and their effects on agriculture. However, his insights do not have a wide enough audience, particularly at a time when the agricultural guidance is dwindling despite the opening of the Agricultural Guidance Center in Qantara earlier this year under the auspices of the Agriculture Ministry.

"Agricultural guidance has been doing a good job lately, but only in the media, not on the ground," said Alaa Khairy,* an engineer at the Central Laboratory for Climate Change. "If they were really working on the ground, farmers would not have lost as much as they did."

More important crops like wheat will be next

What exacerbates the crisis is that those who are harmed the most are small farmers — those who have between 10 to 20 feddans of land — who cannot afford to take preemptive precautionary measures to mitigate erratic weather patterns nor hire experts who can help them make better decisions about how to handle sudden climate fluctuations. Those farmers also cannot afford to provide covers for their fruits during hot seasons, which is one way to prevent crop damage that is quite costly.

This year's crisis is expected to be repeated in the coming years due to the rapid consequences and effects of climate change on global food security. Aside from mangoes, the effects of climate change are projected to affect far more important crops, such as wheat, with reports showing global wheat crop losses due to heat and drought, a particularly worrisome development for Egypt — the largest importer of wheat in the world.

"In the coming period, agricultural engineers must become climate engineers as well," Suleiman said.


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