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The Legend of Og and Gog


Once upon a time, a very long time ago, there were two cave-men: Og and Gog. For millions of years, their ancestors had dwelt in the jungle canopy, high above the ground. Now, Og and Gog had come down out of the trees, and had begun to explore the novelty walking erect. One day they came to the edge of the forest. Beyond them lay the vast African savannah: an open plain, stretching away to the distant horizon. They had never seen such a thing before, and it took their breath away. After the initial shock had passed, their curiosity (for they were eternally curious) got the better of them, and they ventured forth into the bright sunlight, leaving the dense shade and protection of the jungle behind.

After they had advanced a short distance, their eyes alighted on a gently waving stand of tall grass, about 100 yards ahead. “Uh-Oh!,” exclaimed Og fearfully. “There might be a tiger hiding in there, just waiting to pounce on us. Let’s run back to the trees!” Gog was unimpressed. “Nah. Don’t worry!,” he replied, attempting to calm his worried companion. “It’s just the breeze causing the grass to move. We’ll be fine!” But Og was having none of it. Making a hasty about-face, he ran as fast as his legs would carry him, back to the safety of the jungle, where he promptly hauled himself up into the nearest tree, heart pounding in terror. Gog watched him disappear with mild amusement, then continued his exploratory walk, alone.

If this were a didactic children’s story, we know what would come next: A tiger would leap out and devour Gog, and the tag-line of the story – written to inculcate caution – would be something like “Better safe than sorry,” or – “Look before you leap.” In fact, we don’t know exactly what happened next – Og and Gog left us no records. What we do know, based on the population density of tigers and humans, is that every once in a while – perhaps 1 percent of the time, or once in a thousand – Og turns out to be correct, and Gog becomes lunch for a tiger. The rest of the time, Og has worked himself into a tizzy “for nothing.”

Now let’s multiply this episode hundreds of thousands of times, over millions of years. Og – even though he’s usually wrong – reaps a huge genetic advantage: Og and others like him live to a ripe old age and sire many progeny, while Gog leaves fewer offspring – or none at all, depending on when he meets his untimely end. (With apologies to Demosthenes, “He who fears and runs away / Lives to breed another day.”) Thus, over millennia, Og’s genes for vigilance slowly but inexorably spread through the gene pool. Over generations, vigilance morphs into hypervigilance: Always being on the lookout for danger; and (often) seeing danger where there is none. These “vigilance genes” also predispose to hypertension, heart disease, stroke, and maybe even cancer, but all of those disorders strike after the childbearing years have passed (or, peaked).

Modern humans are the heirs to that process of natural selection. There are still a lot of us like Gog (or, who wish we could be more like Gog). But Og’s genes for hypervigilance are very much in evidence: OCD, generalized anxiety disorder, agoraphobia (fear of leaving the house), and autism spectrum disorder, each in their own way, are all part of Og’s legacy. What may have been good for Og out there on the African plain, is not good if one has inherited an “overdose” of vigilance. If you are deathly afraid of animal attack, you will never leave the safety of home. Sometimes this is literally true: I actually had a patient once – a 10 year old boy with ASD and anxiety disorder – whose parents were planning a vacation to Africa. The boy was adamant: “I don’t want to go!” When I asked him why not, he immediately replied “Because I don’t want to die by animals!” That was all he could envision. (Fortunately, I was able to use cognitive-behavioral techniques with him to get him over his fear.) Several parents in my practice had disabling agoraphobia; one such parent confided to me “The only time I ever leave the house is when I come with my spouse to bring the children in to see you.” Likewise, school phobia usually is not fear of school. It is fear of leaving the house. (Children with “school phobia” often give up going to birthday parties, for example, because those are equally threatening ventures beyond the safety of home.) Often, the anxiety and pre-emptive fear are focused on something equally mundane – such as fear of novel situations (“insistence on sameness”), or fear of failure (many episodes of “task refusal” at school stem not from reluctance to do the work, but from a pre-emptive fear of not being able to do it perfectly). Being careful is laudable. Being perfectionistic or pre-emptively hypercritical is not. Likewise, looking both ways before crossing the street is good, but being terrified of stepping out the front door is not. As my stepmother used to say “Too much of a good thing is no good.”

Of course, there’s more to ASD than hypervigilance, and not everyone who is hypervigilant is on the autism spectrum. But hypervigilance and ASD are closely related, genetically and neurologically speaking. If you are the parent of a child on the autism spectrum, the odds are increased that you or your child’s other parent also lie on the spectrum of Og’s descendants, with a bit more vigilance than necessary or helpful. That’s a story for another day.

Until then.


5 responses to “The Legend of Og and Gog”

  1. Chastity Menner says:

    Dr. Coplan,

    Hello. I am a mother of a 5 year old son (soon to turn 6) who was diagnosed on the ASD spectrum at 34 months.

    I have read all your research and watched all of your videos that I can get my hands on. I have wanted to tell you that I am deeply saddened that you are no longer seeing patients. I have searched high and low in the Pittsburgh area trying to find a clinician who measures up to you. Who is as committed, educated and sincere as yourself when it comes to the ASD community.

    If there is one thing I know to be true it is that Autism is truly a spectrum disorder. My son is somewhere in the middle to Higher Functioning for a lack of better definition although sometimes I feel like it’s worse than being on the severe end. I also feel like the system is setting up the (High Functioning) ASD youth for failure. They make it so difficult to acquire any services.The only way I can describe the system is by saying it’s like -calling the police on someone who is driving there children around drunk and all the police can tell you is…were sorry, we cannot help you until something bad happens.-

    I also feel alone because I know that, I am more educated about Autism than the help. It’s a horrible feeling when I have to keep searching for someone who is more knowledgeable than myself. I want to give my son everything but often times I feel my hands are tied. I have so many unanswered questions that I can’t sleep at night.

    Concerned Mother,

  2. Julie says:

    Whoa Dr Coplan, another unexpected way to understand my 3 year old ASD. Who could have thought that two young adults, highly functional, educated and without any family history of mental disorders, could reproduce a child with Asd. Yet, parent 1 is always trying to prevent an upcoming disaster and every mole is “probably” cancer. Parent 2 thinks in pictures, steals other people scripts to produce small talk, and is cognitively rigid.
    I guess these genes get compounded in the next generation.
    So here we are…our sweet boy is very smart, very attached and interactive, can make jokes, and is socially aware…but he is also scripting a book at the moment as a reminder that something is “different” and it came from us.
    Thank you for giving me opportunity to understand something that initially made no sense.

  3. drcoplan says:

    Dear Julie
    Thank you for sharing your reaction to my post. (And thanks for reading my posts in the first place!). I am pleased that my post has helped you to “frame” your son’s behavior (and perhaps yours and your husband’s), in a way that makes sense. You are right about genetics: it’s the combination of ingredients that matters. Not like what we learned in High School biology about “dominant” and recessive” (genes for blue vs. brown eye color, for example). A tiny minority of genes work that way. The rest are much more complicated. Sometimes the effects be additive (for example, if 2 tall people have a baby together, that child might be very tall). And sometimes even more complicated: the genes from one parent can aamplify or suppress the genes from the other parent. Like MC Escher’s famous “Drawing Hands.” I think you would find a lot of useful info in my other blog posts, and my book. Just forgive the outdated terminology (“mental retardation” was still the term in use when the book went to print). Finally, there are lots of good books for adults who are in a committed relationship with a partner on the spectrum. Even if neither of you “qualify” for a diagnosis of ASD, you might pick up some useful insights. I list a bunch of them in part III of my book, aptly titled “Family Matters” (get the double meaning?). Thanks again for writing! JC

  4. drcoplan says:

    Dear Chastity,
    First, thanks for writing in. And second, thanks for your kind words. I still miss clinical practice, but I think I made the right decision. The time to step down is when one is at the peak of one’s skills, not wait until one has started to slip. Of course, that’s also the hardest time to step down. I’m still doing some consulting and public speaking, but no longer the day-to-day responsibility of patient care, and no longer the administrative burden of all the paperwork.
    As for kids (and adults) with higher-functioning ASD: I agree with you. The milder the symptoms, the greater the risk that the child (or adult) will be viewed as “lazy,” “stubborn,” “rude,” etc., when in fact they are dealing with their ASD. If you havent already done so, search for a parent support / advocacy group in the Pittsburgh area with a focus on high functioning autism / Asperger Syndrome. Also, I think you would appreciate going to Autism Asperger Network. You have a lot of energy; I’ll bet you could put it to good use as an advocate. Best wishes. JC

  5. Julie says:

    Thank you so much for your response!
    To extend my understanding of Broad Autistic Phenotype, do these adults have any recognizable autistic traits as 3-4-5 year olds at all? Do they acquire language and learning in “gestalts” or the issues become more recognizable in very complex social situations later in life?
    Also can a person have relatively intact reading comprehension skills and lets say clear ability to lie, joke and use sarcasm…but just being more egocentric (reduced empathy skills) and less able for social chat make you on BAP? I am trying hard to compare the development profile of my husband engineer to the profile of my very smart 3 year old with mild social/language atypicalities but it seems like husband did not present with recognizable social or communication delays at 3.
    It just feels that husband has some BAP traits, but his learning profile was neurotypical.

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