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Seeing colorblindness through her son's eyes

National Institutes of Health
A Japanese scientist believes Vincent Van Gogh might have had a form of colorblindness
Paul Newman and Mr. Rogers were colorblind; Jack Nicklaus is too
Women are rarely colorblind because they have two X chromosomes

My 7-year-old son has fallen in love with Rainbow Loom, the wildly popular sets of pegs and rubber bands kids use to weave friendship bracelets and necklaces.

On a recent weekend, I bought him several new packages of rubber bands, as well as a compartmentalized plastic box to store them in. He sat at the kitchen table and started sorting the bands into color-coordinated piles. White. Black. Red. Blue. Pink. Yellow.

Two piles of translucent bands stuck out from the others: light green had been combined with peachy orange, and lavender mixed in with baby blue.

"Those piles have two colors, buddy," I said.

"No, they don't," he said, not even bothering to look up at me as he continued sorting away.

It was a noteworthy moment in our house. It had been just a few months since my husband and I learned that our son and his younger brother both were colorblind.

This was the first time I noticed the deficiency in action.

We had suspected something might be up with the 4-year-old, a sharp and wily kid who insisted vehemently that purple shirts were blue and that orange blocks were brown.

But we had no clue about his brother, who was compensating so beautifully that he almost fooled his ophthalmologist — correctly identifying a hue of army green (which he probably can't see normally) seconds before completely bombing the colorblindness screening test.

The boys inherited their vision from me. I see color normally, but I carry a quirky set of genes on one of my X chromosomes, passed down from my colorblind grandfather to my mother to me.

Women are rarely colorblind because they have two X chromosomes, one from their mother and the other from their father. The "normal," dominant color vision genes on one chromosome override the effects of the funky, recessive genes on the other.

But boys and men get only one X chromosome — from their mother — which means they don't get that backup DNA. In flips of a genetic coin, my boys both inherited my colorblindness genes.

The ophthalmologist told us our kids' colorblindness was a common, mild sort. They'd be able to see bright primary colors well, but might have trouble distinguishing between certain shades of oranges, browns and greens.

It's more of a bummer than a big deal — hardly the worst genetic shortcoming to inherit.

According to the National Institutes of Health, around 10% of men are colorblind to a certain degree. Actor Paul Newman and kiddie TV favorite Mr. Rogers were colorblind; golfer Jack Nicklaus is too.

In 2011, Japanese scientist Kazunori Asada made a case that Vincent Van Gogh might have had a form of colorblindness similar to my sons'. Viewing the artist's work through a colorblindness-simulation tool he invented, Asada saw new beauties and subtleties that a normally sighted person wouldn't see.

"This reminds us that it is normal for one human being to excel in certain ways, while another excels in other ways," he wrote.

So gazing at Van Goghs is something my kids have to look forward to. But they'll probably always need help picking out their socks.

"The good news is they're boys," our ophthalmologist said. "They don't really give much thought to this kind of thing."

Her breezy advice: Avoid buying boxes of crayons with more than around 16 colors — too confusing — and take note if the kids have trouble reading maps in school.

Watching my son that day at the kitchen table, surrounded by piles of idiosyncratically sorted rubber bands, I wondered what she would have said about Rainbow Loom.

But it was too late to turn back — and the truth was, our son was delighted with his mixed up rubber-band bins and bracelets.

He loomed and sorted and sorted and loomed, adorning his wrists with carefully crafted multicolored creations, many distinctively dotted with an out-of-place orange or light green rubber band.

He might ask me to help with a dropped stitch or a tangled link, but he patiently ignored any advice I offered about color — even as I tried to stop him mid-bracelet to swap out a loop, or picked through his storage box in an attempt to reorganize.

Eventually he decided to make a bracelet for his little brother. Again, a mix-up: One lonely lavender rubber band ended up in a chain of light blue. I pointed it out and started rummaging around for the right color.

"Don't you think your brother would want them all to match?" I asked.

That, somehow, was the last straw. My son stopped what he was doing and looked at me — a hint of exasperation finally creeping into his voice.

"Mommy!" he said. "It's not like he's going to know the difference."

When the ophthalmologist told us the kids were colorblind, my husband and I had felt kind of sad for them.

How did they experience a rainbow? A flower? Our faces? What does their world look like?

Pretty good, it seemed that day in the kitchen.

Our Van Gogh finished the bracelet. His brother loved it.

eryn.brown@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATerynbrown

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