To someone who first meets George, he is an absolutely adorable child, a brown-haired, blue-eyed cute six year old that is well coordinated, active and agile. He looks perfectly normal, however, it soon seems apparent that George does not behave and think like a typical child is supposed to. He is aloof in his class and avoids interaction with other children. He is not attached to his parents, or his classmates. He makes exceptionally realistic pictures of things that he sees, but does not even know the meaning of them.
He throws frequent tantrums, banging his head in the banisters, evoked by nothing but things as simple as someone leaving his drawer open, or disruption of his toys arranged by their colors in the rainbow spectrum. Understandably their parents are frustrated by his disruptive, bizarre and embarrassing behavior. And how hard they try, they are unable to communicate with their son emotionally. George, like thousands of children in America is autistic.
A child like George significantly differs from other children, but often the difference that is perceived as challenging and frustrating is often advantageous, novel and useful if handled in proper way. Autism is often classified by psychologists as a severe form of psychopathology that alters the cognitive ability of the patient. However, I find it very unconvincing to label autism as a form of pathology (or a disease) because more than a disease it is actually just a different way to see world.
Many autistic people grow up to be remarkable person, who with their savant quality bring about different and advantageous changes to the world. It is just because we often fall into ease by lumping people who think differently from us and whom we perceive as “difficult” into “insane” and “sick”. Autistic children and adult are not “sick”, they only need understanding and helpful hands that help an autistic child to hone his novel perspective of the world and use it for the advantage of him and that of the society.
We therefore need a humanistic- existential approach to autism, whereby an autistic child is allowed to be perceived as free so that he can make choices with responsibility that is good for him as well as the society. Autism therefore should not be treated as disorder but tolerated as difference. Psychology of Autism Autism is a disorder of neural development that is characterized by impaired social interaction and by repetitive behavior. Autism often involves lack of social cognitive abilities like empathy, understanding other’s emotions, and appreciation of complex social dynamics.
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in section 299. 00 of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) describes in detail symptoms of autism and other autism spectrum disorders (ASD) that includes Aesperger syndrome, Kanner’s syndrome and PDD-NOS (or atypical autism). (Autism Treatment International) In 1943, the child psychiatrist Leo Kanner of Johns Hopkins University provided the first detailed account of what he called “autistic disturbances of affective contact. ( Schreibman, 27) The main characteristic of these children what he termed “extreme autistic aloneness”, causing a failure for the children develop expected normal relationship with other people and their environment. This neuro-developmental disorder first appears during the early ages of childhood and progresses throughout the life. According to Laura Schriebman, autistic children show special non-normal behavior in five different spectrums: Social behavior, communication, repetitive iterative and sometimes disruptive behaviors, odd emotional responses, and different kind of intelligence and cognition. (Schreibman, 46).
Children with autism show impairment in the capability to understand other and thus have meaningful normal social interaction. They are unable to understand simple non-verbal communications of normal people. Temple Grandin, a noted described her inability to understand the social communication of people with normal neural development, as leaving her feeling “like an anthropologist on Mars”. ( Sacks, 309). Autistic people also show inability to recognize the emotions by looking at the faces, the fact depicted in the book by Mark Haddon, where the protagonist writes that he is unable to say what different faces sketched as emoticons meant. Haddon, 2).
According to some researchers, about a third to a half of individuals with autism do not develop enough natural speech to meet their daily communication needs (Nones-I). Autistic children often show echolia (repeating what others say) than to voluntarily share their experiences as well as pronominal reversals (the tendency to use ‘I’ when ‘you’ is meant (Rosenhan, Seligman, 535). Autisic children show retardation in development of non-verbal communication. They seldom wave “bye-bye”, blow a kiss, or use conventional social gestures. Schreibman, 32). For Christopher, he knows the stories and the facts behind the stars that are millions of light years away, but he has no idea what it means when his father sheds tear leaning on a chair (Haddon, 261). Repetitive behaviors like stereotypy (repetitive movements like rocking, making sounds), ritualistic behavior are present in many autistics. Sometimes the external stimulus of change which is not preferred by autistics might induce them to repetitive disruptive behavior like head banging, biting fingers, eye poking etc.
Christopher would bang his head and groan and roll back on the ground with forehead pressed whenever he was upset or there were too much inflow of sensory input. (Haddon, 8). Autistics also frequently show odd emotional responses. Their emotional responses may be excessive and exaggerated, or may be relatively stable and “flat”. “Parents often complain that their children ‘fly into’ intense tantrums or laugh uncontrollably and there is nothing the parent can do to predict or ameliorate the problem”. (Schreibman, 43). They show irrational fear and show extreme responses to changes in environment, or other daily routines.
There is a vast difference between the way a normal person perceives the world and the way an autistic does. This difference arises from the difference in their abstraction and spatial ability. Despite the fact that 75% of people diagnosed with autism are cognitively impaired, they are not mentally retarded. Unlike mentally retarded who score less across all areas of an intelligence test, autistic children score higher on assessments of visual-spatial ability and rote memory. Autistic children show remarkable capacity to memorize and visualize things; therefore they are often very good in fields like painting, mathematics and science.
They are therefore not mentally retarded but are differently-abled. Even in the case of Christopher in Haddon’s novel he was exceptional in Maths. Temple Gardin, on other hand was brilliant in understanding animal behavior. All these talents emanated from Christopher’s and Gardin’s special perspective of the world that came from them being autistic. Society and Abnormality Before labeling autism as either normal or abnormal, it is better to look at how society views and treats abnormality in historical context. Throughout different cultures and time, society’s perspective on madness has not always been the same.
Only about a millennium ago people who could talk to spirits, or see “things” were considered prophets and revered. Now the people who do so are hallucinating schizophrenics. In fact our society is prone to label anyone who acts and whose behavior does not coordinate with the society’s perceived paradigm of normalness as insane. Even the cause of madness has been defined differently by different societies in different time periods. When people are unable to find the cause of ‘abnormal’ behavior, they avoid the responsibility of finding one by playing the blame game and blaming someone else for such behavior.
Ancient people would blame evil spirits and Medieval Abrahamic religions would blame upon Satan. There have been a few cases when societies instead of blaming others tried to find the cause within themselves. The Greek and the Romans following Galen believed that the causes of all diseases including insanity was internal and due to imbalance in internal fluids. In Hamlet instead of blaming Devil for Ophelia’s suicide, Shakespeare suggests that her withdrawal and eventual suicide were the products of the social influences in her environment (possibly Hamlet’s cruel rejection of her).
However, such insights are rare in history, and society, its religions and its sciences, often succumb only to blame others for something they can not explain. Michel Foucault in his book “Madness and Civilization” argues that madness was always “silenced by Reason, losing its power to signify the limits of social order and to point to the truth. ” (Foucault). The history of diagnosis and epidemiology of autism is a blatant proof of this. The word autism was first used by the Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleurer in 1910, but to describe the symptoms of schizophrenia.
The word was derived from the Greek word autos ( meaning self), and used it to mean morbid self-admiration, referring to “autistic withdrawal of the patient to his fantasies. The word autism first took its modern sense in 1938 when Hans Asperger of the Vienna University adopted Bleuler’s terminology autistic psychopaths in a lecture in German about child psychology. However, the classification of autism did not occur until the middle of the twentieth century, when in 1943 psychiatrist Dr.
Leo Kanner of the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore reported on 11 child patients with striking behavioral similarities, and introduced the label early infantile autism. Almost all the characteristics described in Kanner’s first paper on the subject, notably “autistic aloneness” and “insistence on sameness”, are still regarded as typical of the autistic spectrum of disorders. (Autism Treatment International) Now that the society had acknowledged the existence of autism, it had to find some way to explain the causes behind it.
Like Laura Scheibman writes, “when a definitive etiology for a disorder is unknown, theories of etiologies proliferate”. (Scheibman, 75). This was what happened with autism. A Viennese psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim, used Kanner’s term “refrigerator mothers” to describe that mothers of autistic children had cold and emotionally insulated personalities. Bettelheim proposed that due to pathological unresponsive mothers, a child feels powerless in a hostile environment, where her mother responds with rejection and negative feelings.
The cycle continues until the child retreats into what Bettelheim referred to as “chronic autistic disease”. (Schreibman, 76). The society needed someone to blame for the occurrence of autism, and they readily accepted Bettelheim’s theory for a long time. This blaming of parents was one of the saddest in the history of autism. Many parents like the mother of Temple Gardin were devastated when a therapist would suggest that they were the cause of their children’s ‘disease’.
It was only years later when researchers showed that there is no sufficient correlation between a mother’s personality and autism in children, and that autism was a dynamic phenomenon with much deeper causes that society slowly rejected the “refrigerator mother” hypothesis. However, this blame game has not stopped yet. In 1998, Andrew Wakefield a British gastroenterologist, proposed the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine caused autism. (Offit, 21). The blame was shifted again to doctors and pharmaceutical companies that made the vaccine.
Parents with autistic children then started seeing that their child was autistic because of the shots due to their ‘confirmation bias’. In 2000, Dan Burton, a Republican Congressman from Indiana who find it easier to assign MMR as the cause of his grandson’s autism headed a Congressional Committee to investigate on relation between the MMR and autism. He recommended Food and Drug Administration to ban all vaccines containing Thiomersal (an ingredient of MMR). The recommendation was refused and yet due to public pressure and global concern on the issue most of the manufacturers removed the Thiomersal as preservatives from their vaccines.
However the autism rate never decreased. ( Offit, 20-43). This again was nothing but a blame mechanism of the society. Science has always tried to help society find explanations for unexplainable, and many times it has succeeded, but sometimes when it fails, the society often employs pseudo-scientific, quasi explanations to satisfy the mass. It is because communicating science to public is very difficult because of the fact that often coincidence and causality are hard to distinguish. In the case of autism we must now stop playing the blame game, and take humanistic approach towards the treatment of autism.
Autistic people like all Human beings are basically good, and they can grow up to their fullest potential if provided proper guidance. Instead of treating them as retarded or insane, which they arguably are not, the society should learn to appreciate their uniqueness and help them attain self-actualization. Society and Autism As mentioned earlier, one of the striking characteristics of the autistic child is aloofness, a physical and emotional distance from others that is often troublesome to parents and quite noticeable by others. However, this oes not mean autistics are unable to live in society. Data shows that autistic children gradually improve in their social relationships beginning about age five, provided that they have not been institutionalized in “under-stimulating surroundings”. (Rosenhan, Seligman, 539). They certainly would not develop ‘normal’ relationship with their surroundings, however, they develop skills sufficient enough to survive and contribute in the mutual development of society and themselves, as exemplified by extraordinary achievement of Dr. Temple Gardin.
Autism though discovered later in history, many speculate that autistic children must have been common in all societies in all times. It is noteworthy and arguable that, until recently, before the autism was diagnosed and therapies were created, autistic children in the eastern societies were better off then their counterparts in the west. It was because in the east, with extended families, there were more chances of social interaction that could help autistic child to learn social skills. Moreover protection by an extended family gave a child relief from his irrational fear and opened him for self-actualization.
This shows that with right environment an autistic child can become a productive member of the society. Furthermore scholars have speculated that many famous historical figures were autistic. According to Michael Fitzerald of Department of Child Psychiatry in Trinity College, London, famous authors and writers like Hans Christian Anderson, Lewis Carroll, Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, James Joyce, W. B. Yeats and even Charles Darwin had Aesperger Syndrome. (Fitzgerald). Autism expert Simon- Baron- Cohen goes further by saying that Albert Einstein and Issac Newton were autistic. Muir). He tries to prove his point by arguing that both the scientists showed numerous symptoms now commonly associated with autism.
Both showed three key symptoms of Asperger syndrome: obsessive interests, difficulty in social relationships, and problems communicating. Newton for example, “hardly spoke, was so engrossed in his work that he often forgot to eat, and was lukewarm or bad-tempered with the few friends he had. If no one turned up to his lectures, he gave them anyway, talking to an empty room. He had a nervous breakdown at 50, rought on by depression and paranoia. ” (Muir). Albert Einstein, according to biographer, Illana Katz “was a loner, solitary, suffered from major tantrums, had no friends and didn’t like being in crowds”. ( Katz ). Of course no one can be sure whether these historical figures were really autistic or not. But seeing the special talent of some autistic people like Temple Garden, the hypothesis is not totally unlikely. In this light, autism looks more like a gift than a disease to the society. Breaking the nutshell
According to Treffert, (Treffert) one in ten autistic person is a savant, and more than 50% of savants are autistic. Savants are people often with developmental “disorders” who have one or more areas of exceptional ability or talent that contrasts with their overall limitations. Autism can often bring forth some skills that is exceptional like ability to interpret numbers indefinitely, or distinguishing the slight change in the pitch of sound, etc. that might be very useful to the society. It is still debatable whether autism is solely caused by genes, but it is sure that genes play some part in the causation.
Autistic children due to unique coupling of recessive genes, or due to mutation, bring forth amazing talents and capacities. It is only that the society needs to appreciate them and their uniqueness in their perspective of the world. Evolution has always been possible through mutation that creates adaptive and beneficial characteristics in the species. If Simon- Baron- Cohen is right, our society is what it is now only because of exceptional autistic people like Einstein, Newton, of Darwin. Their talents, a byproduct of their autism, are not thus maladaptive but evolutionarily advantageous for the species.
I therefore believe that autism should not be treated like a disease but appreciated and accommodated as a difference. It is therefore I believe that taking existential-humanistic approach to children with autism is the best way to deal with it. To sum it all up, in Temple Grandin’s words: “If by some magic, autism had been eradicated from the face of the earth, then men would still be socializing in front of a wood fire at the entrance to a cave”, but they would never have achieved what they have achieved now.