Autism spectrum/A few impertinent questions/Could lying on a couch and obsessing over a traumatic childhood ever be therapeutic?

In spite of his increasing differences from other children, it was years before I was able to relinquish a secret belief that Tony might grow up to live a normal life. Doctors consistently declared him to be extremely bright. I didn't believe anything else the psychologists said, but for some reason I believed them when they said Tony was extremely bright. He didn't look or act retarded; he was always busy trying to satisfy his monumental curiosity; and it was hard to think of a child as delightfully independent as Tony growing up to be helpless. He exhibited such self-confidence. If I had accepted Tony's retardation, I would have grieved. Then surely we would have all recovered and gone on with our lives, doing our best for Tony and for the rest of the family. Most people manage to accept the blows fate deals them - a disability or death of a loved one. However each time Tony was denied a service or admission to a school, the feeling of being personally discriminated against by some doctor or psychologist plunged me into that malignant pit of anger and resentment.

Freudian psychoanalysis urged patients to remember long forgotten grievances, mother's rejection, or repressed, traumatic, sexual memories. I knew such treatment would not be therapeutic for me; it would make me feel worse, not better. For me there would be no joy, only pain, in dwelling upon some long forgotten, personal injustice. I kept reminding myself that these well intentioned "scientists" were merely pursuing scientific knowledge, and I should not take them personally. Their theories of the moment might be flawed, but truth was their goal, and truth would eventually prevail. The psychologists were devoting their lives to their theories, and their commitment to psychotherapy was similar to a religious faith. Medical doctors, ones who were not particularly enthusiastic about psychiatry, were harder to explain. That they were all cooperating in some research was the one explanation that seemed to save me from that agonizing feeling of being mistreated. Tony was probably enrolled in some research project, I told myself. Psychotherapy was the treatment to which our family had been assigned, and we interfered with their research when we tried to abandon our psychotherapy.

It did seem therapists everywhere were actively recruiting disturbed and autistic children as patients. Announcements in newspapers spoke of “spectacular results”, although those “spectacular results” were never spelled out. Cooperation among researchers might explain Colonel Mann's belief that psychiatry had some claim upon Tony which other doctors would respect. Certainly everywhere we turned, we encountered coercion to return us to therapy. The year Tony was six he attended public-school kindergarten. Both the teacher and the school psychologist tried to persuade me to return to the Child Guidance Clinic. “School is no substitute for treatment,” they would warn. I avoided them both. Tony flunked kindergarten. When school started the next year, he was obviously not mature enough for first grade. Marin County had excellent classes for retarded children, and unbeknownst to us, they even conducted a special class for autistic children. We were not told of the class for autistic children, and Tony was not allowed in classes for the retarded. The school psychologist claimed it was illegal for autistic children to attend special-education classes. For a while I was filled with bitter resentment toward the entire California legislature for enacting such a law.

Then common sense reminded me that such a law, if it even existed, could only have been passed at the instigation of scientists doing research. What possible motive could legislators have for maliciously denying education to autistic children? Some parents pretended participation in therapy in return for schooling for their autistic child. However now that Ike and I had a better understanding of the nature and purpose of psychotherapy, we didn’t feel capable of such hypocrisy. Tony did not attend any school for the next three years.

One day I read in the newspaper of a proposed meeting in San Francisco for parents of "disturbed children".

"Let's go," I suggested to Ike, "and find out if those children resemble Tony."

"We don't want to become involved with more psychiatrists," Ike cautioned.

"I won't argue," I promised. "I won't say a word. We'll just sit and listen."

Ike agreed. We rarely went anywhere without the children during those years. No babysitter could be expected to cope with the startling things Tony might do. However a close friend agreed to keep the children for that one evening. Ike and I found the address where the meeting was to take place. It was a residence, and there didn't seem to be other cars in front. We were probably early. The president of the organization, the father of a disturbed child, answered the door. Ike and I discussed our children with him and his wife while awaiting other parents. A psychiatrist and a social worker arrived, both young and pleasant. Again, we tried to think of things to talk about while waiting for the meeting to start. After a while it became apparent Ike and I were going to be the only parents to show up for this meeting, making it impossible to sit and listen.

"We may as well begin," the psychiatrist finally said. He explained that the organization conducted a school for "disturbed children". They had six students, and counselling for the mother was a basic part of their program. Ike and I remained silent.

“We really called this meeting in the hope of doing something nice for the parents of our disturbed children,” the pretty young social worker said. “Perhaps you have suggestions?” Ike and I, sitting together on the couch, drew uneasily together, and she continued. “Maybe we could form a little study-group to discuss such things as - when Daddy comes home from work, tired, and the roast is burned? What Daddy says? And how we react?”

I had promised not to argue but I cringed.

"I bought my wife a meat thermometer," Ike said. "There is no excuse for burned roasts around our house."

It was a flippant comment, but I was grateful to Ike for it. “I sure prefer a meat thermometer to any little study group,” I muttered.

“Well, I suppose a meat thermometer might be one solution. . .” the social worker agreed vaguely, as she lapsed into a disconcerted silence.

I turned to the psychiatrist and asked what happened to disturbed children when they grow up. He said he didn't know, but thought some of them might grow up to be eccentric. I'd always thought of eccentricities as charming quirks of character, signs of individuality, but apparently the psychiatrist regarded them as serious defects. I tried to tactfully explain my distaste for psychiatry to the likable young doctor, and he seemed to acknowledge such feelings were within our right. Ike and I got up to leave, promising to "keep in touch" - and to think over the possibility of enrolling Tony in their school.

"There is more than one kind of psychiatrist," the doctor said, as though wanting to explain his position. "One kind treats patients; others conduct research."

I should have asked which kind he was. From the way he spoke, I suspected he was involved in research. Why else would he be making all this effort to recruit patients for free treatment? But my mind was in slow motion again. I still had not mastered the ability to pin down doctors. I assumed the research would eventually be published, and I saw no choice but to await the results.

I never expected to wait for the rest of my life.

One day a social worker knocked at our door and claimed she'd been hired by Marin County to go from house to house searching for disturbed children not in school. She urged me to resume therapy and enroll Tony in a school for disturbed children. A new school for disturbed children was announced in the local paper. Psychiatric treatment for mother was a condition of admission. The school never opened, for they were apparently unable to find mothers willing to undergo therapy. A story about an autistic child was shown on television. The mother didn't like psychiatric treatment any more than I had. However in the story she finally agreed to submit to psychotherapy in return for her child's admission to a special school. She agreed that anything she said during therapy might be used in research. Whoever was promoting such research seemed to have unlimited power and resources. I felt alone and powerless.

I kept in touch with the mother whose little boy, Eric, had been diagnosed minimal brain damaged and autistic at the March-of-Dimes clinic. She introduced me to an organization for parents of "neurologically handicapped" children. Many of these parents had also rebelled against psychiatry, but their children took various drugs, such as Ritalin, tranquilizers or antidepressants. The children attended a special school, which charged the parents a modest fee, and was said to be partially funded by the county. I applied for Tony to be admitted. Again, reports were requested from the Child Guidance Clinic, the March-of-Dimes clinic and all doctors who had ever seen Tony. After months of waiting, someone finally phoned to say they had made a decision. When I arrived for my appointment, I was surprised to be greeted by that same psychiatric social worker who had interviewed Ike and me two years earlier at the March-of-Dimes clinic. Could this man hold some position with this nursery school, while also working at the March-of-Dimes clinic? I knew instinctively that it was not a question he would answer. He said Tony would not be allowed to attend their school unless he were under the care of a psychiatrist.

“The other children aren't under the care of psychiatrists,” I protested, fighting back tears of disappointment and frustration. I was acquainted with several of the mothers whose children attended the school. Their children took an assortment of drugs, but their parents didn’t have to undergo psychotherapy.

Your child is disturbed." He seemed to notice my disbelief. "That was the opinion of the pediatrician at the March-of-Dimes clinic," he added sternly.

I remembered that the pediatrician at the March-of-Dimes Clinic had used rather dramatic language about death in a gas chamber, as she urged psychiatric treatment. But she had also admitted, somewhat reluctantly, that neurologists called such children brain damaged and psychiatrists called them disturbed. I would eventually realize that such diagnoses were determined by whichever treatment the child was receiving. Children under the care of psychiatrists were diagnosed disturbed or schizophrenic. Similar children receiving drug treatments were diagnosed as neurologically damaged. When behavior modification became popular, children receiving those treatments would be diagnosed as autistic. This social worker apparently held some official position at both the March-of Dimes-clinic and this school, and his job seemed to be trying to prevent patients from straying from their assigned treatments. I hadn't yet figured out their bizarre diagnostic system, though, and if Tony were the subject of some "scientific study”, it was something the medical profession was concealing from the public. (Medical ethics have changed since those days. A law was eventually passed prohibiting enrolling children in scientific studies without parents’ knowledge and consent.)

“Your child needs help,” the social worker warned. “You can't allow him to just stay home and vegetate.”

Whatever those doctors were doing, they were apparently convinced it was for the benefit of society, and I felt powerless against such righteousness. Sensing that it would be futile to argue, I burst into tears and jumped up and fled. He wouldn't call it vegetating if he had to cope with Tony's mischief for one day, I thought bitterly.

  • -*-*

Since he stopped attending school Tony devoted himself full time to exploring the world and trying to take it apart, an activity for which he had talent. Some autistic children have unusual artistic or musical abilities. Others, like Rainman, in the movie by that name, have special skill with numbers. Tony’s genius was for creating havoc. Many toddlers do things Tony did, but Tony was a terrible-two-year-old for more than ten years. He appeared surprised and a little puzzled when we scolded him, but every day he seemed to think of something new and startling to do. He poured pancake syrup in the piano; sprinkled pepper in the stew; dismantled the sewing machine and all the clocks; filled the sugar canister with water; sent an old tire crashing down the hill through a window; threw rocks at the neighbors and laughed gleefully when they protested; and swung from telephone cables which he could reach from the top of a fence. He smashed anything breakable. I once found him slinging coca cola bottles from an upstairs porch onto the concrete walk below, apparently enjoying the sound of splintering glass. He poured salad oil all over the kitchen floor. Then, with the notion maybe he should clean this up, he added a bottle of dish soap and mixed them together with a mop. My feet flew out from under me when I entered the kitchen. I tried to crawl back out of the room, but the floor was too slippery for crawling. I floundered for several minutes before reaching the door. He demolished beds by playfully jumping on them. He slammed his bedroom door so hard it split in half. Once we were all on the walk leaving the house when a window up in the third story suddenly shattered. That window was a long way from where Tony was standing. Nevertheless we all assumed Tony was somehow responsible, that he had managed to throw a rock without anyone seeing him do it. I've since wondered if Tony inherited a little poltergeist talent from some of his séance-loving, Vandegrift ancestors. Tony liked heights and watched television from the top of our big old upright piano. He spent much of his time up in trees. He never fell or injured himself. A neighbor was frightened late one night when hearing noises outside her third-floor, bedroom window. She watched in alarm as the window opened. Then, a small, bare foot appeared over the sill. Tony crawled in the window, laughed, and ran down the stairs and out the door. Getting out of bed, he had climbed over her roof and along a ledge to reach her window.

Exuberance, curiosity and love of teasing were often behind Tony's destructiveness. He did love to tease. He also had a temper though, and sometimes acted like a “disturbed” child, tearing up books and ripping his curtains or clothes to shreds, for instance. However when Tony was happy, he was exuberantly joyful. For a while, he would leap, squealing with laughter, from the top of the refrigerator onto the shoulders of whoever passed through the kitchen. All Tony's emotions were exaggerated, and his senses were acute. When angry he was more furious than other children; when busy, he was quiet and intent. If someone mentioned the word ‘doctor’ during conversation, Tony could hear from another part of the house, and would yell, “NO DOCTOR!” He could find Christmas fruit or candy hidden in the back of a closet by his sense of smell. He had an uncanny ability to remember directions. We once went to Disneyland, having been there three years earlier, and Tony pointed out street directions to us.

Refusal or inability to make eye contact is sometimes listed as a characteristic of autism. However Tony's gaze was strikingly direct. He insisted things be done in certain ways. He kept rugs perfectly straight. He saw that all cupboard and closet doors were closed. During a trip to the hospital, I was amazed at the number of drawers doctors carelessly left open. Tony was busy darting into offices, startling doctors, nurses and patients, as he slammed their drawers closed, and then dashed back out of the room, leaving everyone with a “what was that?” look on their faces. His objection to open drawers wasn't because he was fastidious. Tony's table manners were atrocious. Many of his unusual behaviors disappeared after a while, to be replaced by new ones. Tony was a beautiful child. A radiant smile lit up his face, and his big blue eyes sparkled with fun and mischief. Strangers rarely suspected the mental development of such a busy, alert looking child could be retarded. I took him to the playground, but he got along badly with other children. If they so much as touched him, he might lose his temper and throw sand at them. Once he playfully pushed over a baby, making her cry.

“Why you little devil!” the mother exclaimed. She jumped up to chase Tony, who laughed and ran.

“I'm sorry,” I apologized, my face burning with embarrassment. “My little boy doesn't understand.”

"I bet he’d understand my shoe on his behind if I could catch him,” she muttered, unconvinced there was anything wrong with Tony but deviltry.

Someone told me about another autistic child. I phoned the mother, and then took Tony with me to visit her. I told Tony to play out in the yard, hoping he would get into less trouble than in the house. The woman’s child was in school, but she offered me a cup of tea, and we began discussing our children. I didn’t have much time for visiting in those days, and I relaxed with my tea. Suddenly, a cat raced through the room. It was soaking wet! We had passed a swimming pool as we approached the front door. Tony must have thrown her cat in the swimming pool! Apparently cats can swim, and it got away. But what if Tony had drowned it! The woman didn’t say anything, but I felt humiliated. Then she tried to turn on a lamp and discovered that her electricity wasn‘t working. Tony hadn’t been anywhere near that lamp, but I suspected he was somehow responsible. He was usually involved when mechanical devices disintegrated. I decided I’d better take him home, and I abandoned my tea. Later the woman phoned to say Tony had found her fuse boxes and disconnected them, With an atypical child of her own, she expressed amusement instead of indignation.

Life wasn't simple in those days. We were too busy to wonder if we were "happy". Today I remember with pleasure those years when the children were small. (Except for my encounters with doctors, whom I avoided when possible.) I was still ironing to help with the family finances. Ironing had become so automatic that I could relax and indulge in all sorts of thoughts while doing it. Tony seemed to enjoy our trips in the car to deliver it. Some of the women for whom I ironed were interesting people, with whom I became friends, and my ironing customers were my social life. (Years later I would spend a summer in Paris with one of my former ironing customers.) Ike and I also found time for Little League games, Blue Birds, Cub Scouts, the children's dance and music recitals, school performances, picnics and trips to zoos and museums. Fishing was Ike's recreation, and Tony did well on camping trips. On Sunday mornings during the summer, we cooked breakfast over a campfire at a nearby park. Afterward the children played in the creek while Ike and I played scrabble. At times I felt desperate, but I tried not to think about Tony's future. I reminded myself that the possessions Tony destroyed were expendable. By forcing myself not to care what strangers thought, I managed to endure Tony's mischief and destructiveness with a show of serenity. I felt I had no choice, remembering the long list of psychologists eager to listen if I wanted to complain.

We finally persuaded Army dentists to fix Tony's teeth. He had to be hospitalized and given a general anesthetic. The mysterious pains in his ears, nose, teeth or head continued. Occasionally they were in his arms or legs. He was ingenious at thinking of remedies, and rubbed mashed potatoes, toothpaste, pancake syrup or mayonnaise on his hurt - usually in his hair. Sometimes when he got one of these mysterious pains, he would scream and slap the painful spot, or knock his head against the wall. He was careful to pick a wall where he wouldn't injure himself, such as the soft, crumbly plaster of our old house. Tony was knocking huge holes in all the walls, and our house looked as though it was undergoing some demolition process. From time to time we repaired the damage, but Tony soon knocked more holes. Being unable to do anything for our little boy was heartbreaking. I occasionally tried to find medical treatment for him, but doctors just suggested, helplessly, that we return to the psychiatric clinic.

Once at a neurology clinic I was surprised to learn one of the neurologists was also a psychiatrist. "I understand neurologists consider children like Tony brain damaged, and psychiatrists believe they are suffering from maternal rejection. Which theory do you favor?" I asked.

"I'm not partial to either theory, but there is one matter on which we all agree: These children don't stand a chance without some treatment, either psychotherapy or some type of drug therapy," he warned.

The neurologists prescribed a tranquilizer. I gave it to Tony for several weeks. It seemed wrong to give such a drug to a child if it obviously didn't help him, and I hated the responsibility of making medical decisions, but after giving those pills to Tony for a couple of weeks without any effect, I threw them out. His head banging continued off and on for several years.

Tony was nine and hadn't attended school for two years when the school psychologist contacted me and assigned Tony a home teacher. Tony had no understanding of reading and writing, and didn't talk as well as the average four-year-old. However that teacher worked patiently with Tony, and I was grateful for someone outside the family to interact with him for those few hours a week. At Tony's end-of-the-term school-conference, the school psychologist tried to persuade me to try a drug therapy, offering a choice of several - tranquilizers and antidepressants. I'd read that school psychologists all over the country were prescribing drugs for hyperactive children. I knew the effectiveness of these drugs had not yet been demonstrated. No doctor had made a serious effort to find out what was wrong with Tony, and I didn't fancy giving him drugs on such an experimental basis.

"Drugs might relax Tony and allow him to learn more," the psychologist argued.

"I've already tried a tranquilizer and an antidepressant. Neither had much effect."

"Are you afraid of side effects?"

"Oh I suppose there are no grossly harmful side effects, but the long-term side-effects of these drugs are unknown. I don't want to give a drug to Tony without some evidence it might help."

The psychologist argued a few more minutes, then finally lapsed into silence.

"I hear you won't be with our school district next year," I commented to change the subject.

"That's right," he answered absently. "I'm going into private practice. My only connection with the school district now is a research project on which I'm still working." At that time conducting scientific research upon school children without the knowledge and consent of parents was considered perfectly acceptable.

  • -*-*

Brain-washing can be effective, especially when respected members of society cooperate to impose some concept upon vulnerable, frightened parents. The False Memory epidemic, which occurred a few years later, at the end of the 20th Century, demonstrates the possible dangers of psychotherapy. Suddenly women began “retrieving” memories during therapy of being sexually abused as children, or even as infants. The women had supposedly remained unaware of such abuse during their entire lives - until a therapist “retrieved” awareness of them. Some of them “remembered” fantastic, satanic ritual-abuse ceremonies, and one even “remembered” being forced to have sex with a horse. (I do wonder about the details of that one - even imaginary details.) Some of the women developed “multiple personalities”. Men ended up in jail because of these emotional allegations! Finally an organization, the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, was organized to try bring some sanity to the concept, and address some of the injustices caused by these hysterical accusations. Some women later retracted their accusations, admitting them to be the result of imagination, encouraged by a therapist. I’m not sure if a retrieved memory of a traumatic event has ever been verified, but many of them have been shown to be false. Skeptics of retrieved memories argue that forgetting is the problem for people experiencing traumatic events; painful memories are difficult to escape. We might forget some of the details, but if an event is traumatic, it remains painfully stark in our memory.

Questions edit

The original images may be found on this pdf copy of the book.

Current page: Could lying on a couch and obsessing over a traumatic childhood ever be therapeutic?

  1. Wouldn’t volition be an essential aspect of creativity?
  2. Could an inherently creative universe, a living universe, ever be defined by mathematical formulas?
  3. How did the laws of nature originate?
  4. Are some scientific concepts too sacred to be debated?
  5. Are intelligence and creativity two separate and distinct processes?
  6. Are psychoanalytic theories profound? Or just convoluted?
  7. If purposeful creativity exists as an aspect of reality, why should we assume it is a process unique to human consciousness?
  8. Can the value of scientific knowledge ever justify enrolling people in research projects without their knowledge or consent?
  9. Exactly what technical knowledge enables psychiatrists to manipulate ids, egos and psyches?
  10. Should "normal" be equated with average?
  11. What technical knowledge enables psychologists to declare people emotionally abnormal?
  12. Are psychologists able to scientifically measure parental love? Or its lack?
  13. Is the universe, including life, an automatic, mechanical process, driven by nothing but the laws of physics and chemistry (the materialist position)? Or do other forces play a role, such as mind, consciousness, judgment and volition - most of which we presently have only have limited understanding?
  14. Should doctors and scientists refrain from expressing skepticism about theories of colleagues in other fields?
  15. Do people generally choose the challenges which force them to grow?
  16. How can we claim to scientifically manipulate thoughts and emotions if we don't even understand how such elusive phenomena relate to physical reality?
  17. What is faith? If belief that God organized the universe is a matter of faith, why isn't the materialist belief that the universe came together by some accidental, mechanical process also a matter of faith? (Or, the Buddhist belief in self-organization.)
  18. Are living creatures constantly evolving as they strive to grow and adapt? Or must evolutionary adaptations passively wait around for a random mutation to accidentally pop up in someone's genome?
  19. 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?
  20. Could lying on a couch and obsessing over a traumatic childhood ever be therapeutic?
  21. Would it even be possible to conduct a scientific study to determine whether psychological treatments are effective?
  22. What is racism?
  23. Does free-will exist?
  24. Would obsessing over a traumatic event ever cure any mental illness?
  25. Could a creative intelligence be an innate aspect of all Nature?
  26. What would define economic theories as materialistic or non-materialistic?
  27. Is intolerance often the result of personal insecurity?
  28. Consciousness and free-will may be defining characteristics of all life, but do we have much understanding of what they actually are?
  29. Can we do other people's growing for them?
  30. Are Western democracies civilization’s ultimate achievement?
  31. Which would produce the most psychologically stunted individuals? Being emotionally challenged? Or never encountering any challenges?
  32. Could the purpose of life be to participate in the growth of the universe?
  33. Can science investigate and attempt to describe a non-materialistic version of the universe?
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