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A Technologist Troubleshoots His Sons’ Autism, Leading to Environmental Activism

Caring Conversation — Peter Sullivan

Peter Sullivan is the founder and CEO of Clear Light Ventures, as well as an environmental health funder who focuses on toxins and wireless safety. He has spent the last 15 years successfully recovering his two sons from autism and sensory issues.

Rajiv: What is your caregiving experience, right now and in the past?

Peter: It started a little bit with my own health, but more because of my kid’s development delays. Both boys were mild on the autism spectrum. The first exhibited concerning behavior even in the crib, had difficulties with sensory integration, and got kicked out of preschool. The second also had problems in preschool. He was not socializing with the other kids, but just sitting in a corner watching the birds.

I think there’s a natural sequence people follow. Everybody thinks things are genetic, and that you can’t do anything other than coping strategies, sensory things and so forth.

But then you always realize at some point the food has got to have an impact. So, I began reading about enzymes and food allergies and all these things, and then tried changing the food situation at home. This led to a lot of conflict between me and my wife. No one likes change imposed on them, even if it stems from a caring, loving desire.

That forced me to then do things that were less contentious. Rather than caring through food, I ended up looking at the environment more, especially chemical exposures of various kinds. Such as changing the laundry detergent, getting rid of some of the smelly stuff in the house, and dealing with mold. No one’s going to argue with that.

Eventually I got into electromagnetic radiation from devices, cables, power and wireless technologies. Some of it you can get rid of. Some of it’s wiring errors and things that don’t affect anyone at all. Sometimes you start getting into use patterns, like turn this certain thing off at night, or cover this up, or get a different version of this, and then that starts to get contentious.

What I have learned is that you first do as much of the behind the scenes stuff as possible. Once people start sleeping better and everybody’s calmer and feeling better, then there can be a more mindful, loving discussion about things that involve changing behaviors, such as food, or video games, or screen time. If people think it’s a power and control situation they don’t like it, whether it’s a kid or a spouse. And so change, even for the best of reasons, is tricky.

What is your professional background, your fields of expertise?

I was a psychology major as an undergrad, and had a couple of years of electrical engineering in with that. Then, I was a Navy pilot for a couple of years, but it wasn’t the right thing for me. I had gotten kind of addicted to computers, and it took a while, but in 1988 I got a job in tech support with a technology company called Silicon Graphics. I spent two years troubleshooting in the field, fixing supercomputers and workstations, and then three years doing customer service on the phone. It turns out I’m naturally a good troubleshooter, and I’m good with customer service.

But I wanted to do more combining people and technology. My objective became: how to use personal technology to enhance human performance. So in 1995 I started taking classes at Stanford University in their Human Computer Interaction Program. One class at a time, while still working.

The next ten years were kind of wild. I was working full time, raising kids, moving houses, taking classes, and running marathons. I was doing very well professionally, leading software design and getting promoted at a series of companies: Silicon Graphics, Excite, Interwoven, and Netflix. But, I was getting burnt out, I was starting to have health problems, and both the kids had health problems. Something was very wrong.

My wife had been one of the early employees at Google, and in 2004 when Google IPO’d it was an opportunity to do something different. It was ridiculous to have both of us continue to work full time when we didn’t need to.

So I said I’m going to take time off to work on our kids, and I’m going to fund research into these environmental health issues, and help as I can.

For my own health problems, I started with toxic metals because it was the most known environmental factor and the most credible one. Eventually I found that even after I detoxed, that my body was still becoming more and more sensitive to the electrical stuff. Then, at a Commonwealth Club event I found scientists talking about electrical issues impacting health, which led me to that research.

Now, eight years later, I’m really the leading environmental health funder in the country on wireless safety. I speak at many conferences on health and wireless, including Autism conferences. I just wrote a booklet on simplifying autism improvement or recovery. [Note: When published, the booklet will be available here. A video and slide deck covering the material are already available.]

Jack got kicked out of school like 1999. So it’s been coming up on 20 years of looking at sensory and autism stuff.

How have your professional skills and perspectives influenced or impacted your caregiving efforts? It struck me as you were describing your background, that where you started — the problem solving aspect of tech support, both mechanical and people — is what you applied at home.

That is exactly correct. I fell back to my wheel house. I basically said, I’m a master at troubleshooting stuff and I’m just going to start applying what I’ve learned, what I know. I had a lot of special training in troubleshooting methodologies, and I started applying that to autism.

And I realized this is not that hard of a problem. Yes it’s complex, we don’t know all the biology, we don’t know all the stuff going on, it’s a big messy mix. But it’s a very much like a clean room manufacturing environment. If you’ve got something working and then there’s a regression, you ask what’s changed, and then you systematically change out all the parameters. And I started doing that.

Along the way, I realized that I don’t want to be that person who doesn’t look at their own stuff, their own industry. And so I started looking at the wireless stuff. You have to, you can’t have biases, you have to systematically look at everything. And then when I did, that just blew your mind. And you go, Wow we are really, really biased on this topic.

How have your caregiving experiences impacted your professional efforts?

My personal care situation is my work. What I’ve done is to share the information that I’ve learned through my personal care, the care that I give to myself and my kids. Because it’s not just autism, but it’s also sleep, mental health, and chronic illness. What I have learned is really fundamental to so many things. Not addressing these environmental factors is just a real missed opportunity for people.

What one piece of advice would you give someone who found themselves in similar caregiving situations?

To not make assumptions. Say you have some sort of illness, a chronic illness, a food allergy, or Alzheimer’s, or Parkinson’s or anything. If you haven’t had it from day one, if it’s not a trait like blue eyes, then don’t assume that it’s 100 percent genetic. But assume that there is a large environmental component.

You have to ask What’s changed? You may have a genetic predisposition, but the impact depends on context. You may need to do more things to stay under control, but there are things you can do. In these chronic conditions, it’s like you’re getting more toxins into your body than your body can take out. If you have more damage than your body can repair, you’re going to go down. That’s just a process issue, and it’s just like a business that can’t keep up with expenses. So our job is to say let’s identify all of these expenses, all these loads on the body, and unload them. That is part of the caring.

Don’t assume that you can’t change the situation. There are so many levers you can try. Matter of fact there are more levers than you can control; you will be overwhelmed by the number of levers that you have. In my book I suggest a sequence, based on my own experience and a lot of research. Don’t waste time and money on hard-to-change things until you’ve taken care of the easier things.

Life is too hard right now. This is one of the hardest times to be a parent. And actually even caring for eldercare is ridiculous. We’re all overburdened with this. So we need to be smarter about how we care for ourselves and our families.

Interviewed: 24 July 2018, by Rajiv Mehta

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