Autism spectrum/A few impertinent questions/Are psychologists able to scientifically measure parental love? Or its lack?
I couldn't imagine being successful in any verbal confrontation. When emotionally upset, my slow-motion mind seemed to freeze, and prevent me from thinking what I should have said until a week later. The prospect of trying to defend myself to that psychologist, a certified expert at talking, left me weak with fear and dread. I still really didn't know much about psychology. Much of what I read seemed silly, but our scientifically educated society appeared committed to it, and I told myself that it must surely include profound concepts that I hadn’t yet encountered. The psychologist was obviously devoting his life to therapy, and he would be offended by my growing suspicion that his "science" might be nonsense. Nevertheless I finally went to group therapy one day determined to try to discuss Tony.
"Do you have evidence children like Tony don't grow up to be normal," I demanded, "or do you object to him merely because he isn't average?"
Dr. Zircon and the other women looked startled at my sudden assertiveness.
"What's wrong with Tony?" I persisted. "Is he mentally retarded?"
"No, he's very bright - extremely bright." At that age Tony didn’t display many of the behaviors I’ve since realized is typical of autistic children. He was actually more similar to what was then called Asperger’s (temper, spinning things, echo laic, a fascination with building things with blocks and having mathematically inclined relatives.) but his gaze was always direct and alert, and his interactions with people seemed normal to me. He didn't appear interested in playing with other children, but small talk at women's luncheons wasn't one of my favorite entertainments either. I still had never heard of either autism or Asperger’s, but while skeptical of other things psychologists said, for some reason I always believed them when they declared Tony to be extremely bright.
"How do you know he's very bright? Did you give him an IQ test?"
"Tony isn't testable right now, but we can tell by looking that he is quite alert."
"Do you suspect Tony of being psychotic?"
"Of course not!"
"Then what is wrong with him?"
"He's emotionally retarded."
I had never heard of the term. "My other son was like Tony until he was three. Was he emotionally retarded?" I asked, unable to keep sarcasm out of my voice.
"I think so."
"Oh for heaven's sake," I exclaimed in disgust. He not only thought I caused Tony to be abnormal, he was declaring my other son, Guy, a child he’d never even met, to be defective. He apparently believed I had the ability to damage children emotionally, and admission of my guilt would be necessary for Tony’s recovery. In fact, public confession of one’s faults was actually what such recovery was thought to consisted of, and supposedly the more dramatic the confession, the more effective the cure.
I took a deep breath, and trying to suppress my resentment, I forced myself to attempt a less contentious tone.
“Tony hasn't developed much interest in people yet. It's a quality everyone has to differing degrees. Couldn't he have been born that way?”
“No,” Dr. Zircon stated. “Children are not born like that.
Most parents soon realize that each of their children are already born with their own distinctive character and personality. Only a bunch of men who probably hadn't spent much time around children could come up with bizarre theories about mothers needing a psychologist to tell them how to be a proper parent.
"You believe I did something to Tony?"
“I believe it was something you didn't do.”
Dr. Zircon looked uncomfortable. I should have demanded, "And precisely what is it that you believe I didn't do?” He was obviously referring to his repeated charge that I was not emotionally involved with my children, and I should have insisted that he be explicit, but I couldn't bring myself to force his ridiculous accusation into words. Psychologists described mothers of autistic children as “cold”. Most psychiatric patients approach a therapist gullibly anticipating exotic, wondrous, scientific treatments. I’m sure a submissive attitude is an essential attitude for therapy. Parents of autistic children seem to share some of their autistic children's personality traits, which might include independence and non-conformity – and a woeful shortage of submissiveness. I might have been timid, but I could think of ways to resist submitting to other people’s beliefs. Mothers of autistic children may not have exhibited the awe and respect to which therapists felt they were entitled, and one can understand why they might regard such mothers as “cold”. At our first meeting Dr. Zircon muttered to himself, “Let's see if we can get a little transference going here.” He was probably also thinking, “Let’s see if we can get a little respect for my expertise.”
I tried to suppress the anger and resentment I felt at his unspecified accusations. “People with emotional problems are unhappy,” I argued. I turned to the other women, who had been sitting in silence, listening to my confrontation with the psychologist. “You are all aware of your unhappiness aren't you?” I asked.
“Well I've usually managed to enjoy life.”
"That seems important to you," the psychologist suggested cunningly.
"Oh, for crying out loud!" He seemed determined to make something sinister out of my every remark. Then I added in exasperation, "I don't understand how you psychologists can believe some little event in a child's life could actually prevent him from growing up normally."
"What do you mean by some little event?" Dr. Zircon persisted.
I glared at him, unwilling to suggest any.
"Why do you think Tony does things like lie down on the floor at Sunday school?" he continued.
"I suppose Sunday school bores him!"
Unlike most of the other women in the group, I didn't try to impose my will upon my children - or anyone else, for that matter. I had accepted the fact that my attitudes often weren‘t “average”, but I didn't feel compelled to impose them upon anyone. I'd found effective ways of interacting with people, while respecting differences. I was confident I didn’t cause Tony to become abnormal, but I realized nothing I might say would matter to this psychologist. He had apparently become committed to some theory before ever seeing Tony or me. I shouldn't take what he says personally, I kept reminding myself, but surely I was entitled to know my child's diagnosis!
“Have you never seen another child like Tony?” I asked.
Dr. Zircon shook his head uneasily. The question obviously bothered him. I was convinced there had been other children like Tony. Maybe Dr. Zircon hadn't actually seen another autistic child. I should have asked if he had ever read or heard of such a child, but as usual I didn't figure it out at the time. The right question always seemed to occur to me a week later! Nevertheless, I sensed that other doctors suspected some specific diagnosis. They seemed interested in a child who might have an unusual reaction to a fountain pen spinning on the floor; a child who took things apart and whose antecedents went to college, got good grades and professed some unusual attitude toward religion; a child who ignored other children, and one who makes symmetrical designs with blocks.
“When I first spoke to Dr. Berger he didn't seem to think there was necessarily anything wrong with Tony,” I persisted.
"Just what did Dr. Berger tell you?" Dr. Zircon demanded, getting up from his chair and starting across the room toward me.
Maybe the two psychologists disagreed about Tony. If so, I felt loyalty and gratitude toward Dr. Berger, who hadn't seemed devious.
"Nothing," I mumbled, lowering my eyes. Dr. Berger hadn't actually told me anything. And if he had inadvertently revealed optimism by his tone of voice, I wouldn't tell on him.
The psychologist stood menacingly over me. "You know," he warned sternly, "Tony is not going to grow up! Or talk! Until you do something!"
I cringed, intimidated by his anger. By "do something", he obviously meant confess to some weird subconscious thought. Psychology books described how repressed thoughts about unspeakable matters, such as incest, dominate people's lives, and Dr. Zircon was apparently furious because I refused to confess any such feelings. One way to win an argument is to declare all dissent to be pathological. Psychologists even have a technical name for it - "denial". Dr. Zircon was unable to control his anger at what he regarded as my blatant "denial". I'm sure his fury would have turned to delighted approval if only I'd obligingly remembered some childhood trauma, such as sexual abuse. Our society bestows great authority upon policemen - and also upon doctors. Even I would have had enough sense not to deliberately defy a policeman. But should we really bestow such authority on doctors? (Dr. Zircon was a psychologist, not even a doctor, but I encountered medical doctors just as insistent about Tony needing psychiatric treatment.) The other women, who had momentarily found my encounter with the psychologist more interesting than their own problems, waited a few minutes and then resumed their usual complaints.
- The original images may be found on this pdf copy of the book.
Current page: Are psychologists able to scientifically measure parental love? Or its lack?
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