Autism spectrum/A few impertinent questions/Are intelligence and creativity two separate and distinct processes?
For a time after our second visit to the pediatrician, and while awaiting Tony's appointment at the psychiatric clinic, my mind became overwhelmed with irrational thoughts. I still have no explanation of that painful episode. That doctor's concern with me seemed to indicate that he regarded me as abnormal, and for a while I became obsessed with my own deviations. Maybe it wouldn’t have happened if my husband had been home, but I had no one with whom I could discuss my "abnormalities". Eventually I even learned to laugh about the awful experience, but I confess that it was many years before I could write about that dreadful time without crying all over the typewriter. For some reason, I am still unable to make it sound terrifying rather than funny, but I certainly felt no amusement at the time. I'd suffered the most traumatic shock of my life. Much of the time I was alone with the children - and my thoughts. During the days I talked to neighbors, took care of the children and went on with my life. Night after night I lay awake pondering the pediatrician's bewildering cross-examination. I analyzed his every gesture, again and again, trying to understand the purpose of his strange interrogation. What was he trying to find out? What did he think might be wrong with Tony? (About which he “wouldn't care to make a judgment.”) Aside from spinning his pen on the floor, which didn’t appear to impress Tony, the doctor hadn’t paid much attention to my child. He appeared to be searching for something wrong with me, some abnormality serious enough to affect Tony.
I'd never questioned my sanity. My parents had been blissfully ignorant about psychology, and I never paid much attention to it. "Suppressed hostilities", "inferiority complexes" and "emotional problems" might be clichés today, but they meant little to me at that time. Before television talk-shows, people didn't spend time discussing their feelings, and I never knew anyone who worried about their self-esteem. I’d never felt an urge to obsess over a “lack of affection during childhood”. The world consisted of sane people and insane people, and no one seemed to express doubt that I was among the sane ones.
One reason for my vulnerability was probably an awareness of being a little different. I didn't always share majority beliefs. My interests were often not those of a typical woman. I rarely felt the usual feminine enthusiasm for dresses, hats, hair-dos, sterling silver or the color of kitchen curtains - or even whether I had any kitchen curtains. Such non-conformity was not always comfortable, but I'd learned to live with it - mainly, by keeping my divergent thoughts and attitudes to myself. It had never occurred to me to regard them as abnormalities. But now that doctor apparently not only thought I was abnormal, he actually believed my abnormalities had damaged Tony! Maybe I'd somehow caused Tony to become such a nonconformist that he didn't regard anything people did, including talking, as worth imitating. Sometimes on those long, bleak, sleepless nights I vowed to phone that pediatrician and beg him to reveal whatever he had discovered about me. In the reality of daylight, I never mustered the courage to contact that menacing interrogator again, not even on the phone. I stayed home with the children and awaited the appointment at the psychiatric clinic. While I waited, sentences floated to the forefront of my mind, statements I had read or heard somewhere, such as “a very intelligent child who withdrew because his mother didn’t talk to him when he was a baby.” That couldn't apply to Tony. I found talking to my babies natural. Besides, Tony had a talkative brother and sister, and numerous talkative, neighbor children.
I also remembered reading somewhere of a child (described by a psychologist as extremely intelligent) who "wouldn't talk because he didn't have to; he pushed his mother around and got what he wanted." Tony pushed us. He pushed someone into the kitchen and to the refrigerator when he was hungry. However Tony didn't push because he didn't want to talk; he obviously didn't know how.
I seemed to remember once reading of a psychologist claiming, "An unusually intelligent child sometimes won't play with other children because he knows he is different." That sounded silly to say about any child, and in Tony's case, he didn't pay enough attention to other children to notice any differences. One night it struck me that all these remembered statements involved children with exceptional intelligence. I turned on the light, got out of bed and looked up ‘genius’ in the encyclopedia. This authority stated some psychologists consider genius similar to a neurosis or psychosis, theorizing conflicts were channeled into productive pursuits rather than violent behavior. (That might sound silly, but it was in my encyclopedia - right along with all the Freudian nonsense.) I sat shivering on the floor by the bookcase, in my nightgown, with the encyclopedia in my lap. Could that be what the doctor thought was wrong with me? Did he suspect me of being a closet genius and believe Tony had inherited this mysterious “neurosis” or “psychosis” from me?
I knew my IQ was probably above average, and I generally had confidence in my own judgment. But genius? I was good at math, better than anyone else in my high school class. I even seemed to grasp mathematical concepts quicker than the boys did. I hadn't yet read discussions about the difference between analytical brains and intuitive brains. Eventually a Cambridge psychologist, Simon Baron-Cohen, would be one of the authorities to speculate about such differences, and he would suggest that autistic children possess hyper-masculinized, analytical brains. But Baron-Cohen was born in 1958, and he was only three years old in 1961 while I lay in bed agonizing over my "abnormalities" and what they had done to Tony, so I obviously didn't hear about such differences from him. However even before I read of such scientific discussions, I'd often been aware that I found men easier to understand than women. Women are often accused of "thinking with their emotions". Admittedly, I could become highly emotional, but I seemed able to understand my feelings and could often recognize any role they played in my thinking.
As a teen-aged girl, trying to out-smart the boys hadn't felt like a good idea. Playing dumb proved to be an effective social tactic, and I enjoyed clowning. In the architecture building at the university a big tub of water was used to soak art paper before taping it to drawing boards. Architecture students were notorious for such juvenile pranks as dropping bags of water out the window onto unsuspecting victims. In 1940 I was the only girl in my architecture class, and my classmates announced that it was unladylike for girls to wear trousers. That was the reason they gave for throwing me in that tub of water whenever I appeared at school in slacks. They wouldn't have dared do such a thing to most girls, but they must have sensed in me the self-confidence and tolerance to deal with such playful rowdiness. In retaliation I talked someone into helping me dismantle a couple of their desks and reassemble them on the roof. Another time they locked me in the phone booth for a while and fed me Coca Cola by a straw through the keyhole. I was unable to keep from laughing. The truth was, I enjoyed being the victim of pranks as much as I delighted in playing them. Architecture was really my minor. I was majoring in fun. I actually had no pressing ambition to become an architect; like most girls I hoped to get married. Architecture was just something interesting to study in college. I was also developing social skills, something more important to me than academics at that point in my life. Now as I pondered how my "abnormalities" might have damaged Tony, I remembered another incident at the university. Traditionally students stayed up together and worked all night before turning in their designs. We called it being en charette, a term borrowed from French architecture students who continued to work on their projects at the last minute, after they were placed "on the cart". One such evening I finished my work early and lay down on a couch to take a nap. Several of the boys were talking in a foreign language. They switched to English, and I realized they were discussing one of my roommates, and their words weren’t meant for my ears. While I lay there wondering how to avoid being caught eavesdropping, one boy asked,
"Do you suppose she's actually asleep over there?"
"You can never tell about her," another boy commented. "She's not as dumb as she pretends to be, you know."
I struggled to keep from laughing out loud. The boy was a friend, and he didn't seem to hold my “genius psychosis” against me. Now I suddenly wondered if that boy's remark could have more ominous significance. The pediatrician had also detected my abnormality and apparently thought such a defect might have damaged Tony! I felt overwhelmed with shame and humiliation. I cringed, as I wondered how many people must have observed the lengths my subconscious went to conceal my aberration, while I sailed through life oblivious to the glaring flaw. Such a defect might be overlooked in someone who accomplishes something, but I'd neglected to produce anything that might even remotely resemble genius. The pediatrician had even unearthed my shameful secret by using my own private IQ test: agnosticism.
If I was ever an Atheist, it was only briefly. The decline in our commitment to organized religion is a dramatic change in our society, much of which occurred just during my lifetime. Everyone has a religion, beliefs about right and wrong and speculations about the nature of reality. I'd read that at that time, only one or two percent of the population admitted to being Atheists. I was a little ahead of my time. However not all religions include a supernatural, personal God - a God who expects to be “worshiped”, and who is concerned about the happiness and details of individual lives. I don't anticipate a complete understanding of nature's creativity, but I recognize that creativity exists as an aspect of reality. The accidental, mechanistic model adopted by most Atheists seems to me just as implausible as any religious story. Today, blatant scorn for religious beliefs has become almost common, and many people openly use Atheism as a measure of intelligence. Like many of today’s rather abrasive, evangelical Atheists, I also considered myself quite clever to have rejected religious myths and parables. As I lay in bed agonizing over my deviations during those long, dark nights, my "genius psychosis" felt excruciatingly painful. That doctor’s probing was one of the most traumatic experiences of my life. My reaction might seem absurd today, but it’s hard to realize the power Freudian psychology could exert over frightened people's minds. I would grow, and today I hope my entire reaction to having a retarded child might be less self-absorbed. I suspect most growth is achieved when forced by circumstances, and my impending growth was bearing down upon me. Then one night as I lay in bed brooding over my aberrations and what they had done to Tony, an amusing thought struck me. I remembered the time I wrote two checks for twenty dollars each because I couldn't remember how to spell fourty (oops! -forty- these days my computer renders spelling an obsolete measure of intelligence). Some genius! My natural sense of humor had returned, and without really understanding them, I managed to push those agonizing thoughts from my mind. What the doctor was actually trying to determine was whether I rejected my child. He suspected autism, of which I'd never heard, and which at that time was believe to be caused by "maternal rejection". It was also thought that autistic children would be extremely intelligent - if they weren't rejected.
The episode did teach me that perfectly sane people are capable of irrational episodes. At that time subconscious thoughts were believed to cause insanity, and some doctors apparently felt qualified to examine people’s subconscious to judge their mental health. Today, as Freudian analysis has lost some of its allure, fewer doctors might feel so presumptuous. As we have learned that autism is not caused by “maternal rejection”, we might remind ourselves that even the most skillful psychiatrist was once unable to distinguish a loving mother from a rejecting one. They detected “rejection” in every woman who happened to be the mother of an autistic child.
- The original images may be found on this pdf copy of the book.
Current page: Are intelligence and creativity two separate and distinct processes?
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- Should we have official committees to define scientific knowledge? Or is an ever-changing, constantly-challenged, general consensus our best way to keep our understanding of reality vibrant?
- Could lying on a couch and obsessing over a traumatic childhood ever be therapeutic?
- Would it even be possible to conduct a scientific study to determine whether psychological treatments are effective?
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- Current page: Are intelligence and creativity two separate and distinct processes?