Autism spectrum/A few impertinent questions/How can we claim to scientifically manipulate thoughts and emotions if we don't even understand how such elusive phenomena relate to physical reality?
I met with Dr. Zircon one more time. When group therapy ended in the spring, we were told to each report to the psychologist's office for a concluding interview. I had continued group therapy, most of the time as a grim observer. Dr. Dingle had assured me that my attendance in the group was merely so Tony could spend an hour with Dr. Lavalle. Pretending therapy felt a little dishonest, but I did what I was told. When I arrived for my concluding appointment, the psychologist acted as uncomfortable with me as I felt with him.
“Well now,” Dr. Zircon began, “how is Tony doing?”
“He's doing fine.” I answered. I had stopped reporting any of Tony’s deficiencies to the psychologist when I discovered he blamed them all on me. We both struggled with a heavy silence. Finally, I attempted to fill it, “You know, when I agreed to join the group, I thought that if I came here each week, that. . that. . . ”
“Yes . . .?”
“I thought that after you got to know me. . .well. . ..”
“You thought I would realize that you didn't need any psychiatric treatment!” he finished for me.
"Yes," I agreed. Psychotherapy is supposed to help achieve insights. The psychologist spoke as if he just had one. Could he have been suddenly struck with a doubt that I rejected Tony? He then suggested rather tentatively, maybe even hopefully, that perhaps I might decide to quit therapy?
I responded with a resolute, "No!" Although I detested therapy, this was the only treatment the medical profession was offering for Tony. I was willing to endure the awful experience in exchange for whatever possible benefit Tony's time with Dr. Lavalle might accomplish.
"Well then, Tony should continue with Dr. Lavalle," he said, "but you certainly don't need any psychiatric treatment." He gave an unconvincing little laugh, blushed, and looked away from my distrustful scrutiny. Then, fumbling with some papers on his desk, he continued, "I'm being transferred in a few weeks, but in the future I suggest you come in occasionally with your husband and report Tony's progress to Colonel Mann.”
Colonel Mann took a vacation. For a while that summer neither Ike nor I talked to a psychologist, although we continued to take Tony for what they called his 'play therapy'. One day as I waited in the clinic for Tony, Colonel Mann, back from his holiday, came out of his office and spoke to me.
"Tell your husband I'm back. I'll see him next week at the usual time."
"Do you want me to come too?" The psychologist hesitated as if trying to make up his mind. "Dr. Zircon said --" I began.
"Oh, I suppose you can come along if you want," he conceded indifferently. Thus Ike and I began our second year of psychotherapy.
"Tony's prospects are very bright if we all cooperate here," Colonel Mann said at our first session. "His future looks bleak if we don't."
Apparently some children like Tony grow up just fine, but having experienced a sample of their "treatment", I was beginning to doubt that psychotherapy ever "cured" anything. The children had surely just been slow to mature.
"What's wrong with Tony?" I asked.
"There is nothing physically wrong with him," Colonel Mann answered.
Tony hadn't been given a physical examination. Doctors, I had learned, give many tests to children suspected of mental retardation. I'd read of electroencephalograms, skull X-rays, blood and urine tests, and basal metabolism tests. (DNA testing was not yet a reality.) The clinic was part of Letterman Army Hospital, a large, well equipped, highly respected facility. Since no one had suggested any such tests, the psychologists must know Tony was not retarded. Doctors appeared to recognize some specific diagnosis that ruled out retardation.
"The idea is to frustrate Tony - and then reward him," Colonel Mann would expound. The psychologist would put his foot up on the desk so Tony couldn't reach the drawer where he kept candy. Tony did not question the strange ways of psychologists, and he had single-minded determination about sweets. He cheerfully pushed and pulled on the psychologist, trying to crawl over and under him, until Colonel Mann finally allowed him to get to the candy.
"See, I'm making myself important to Tony by giving him candy. Now Mommy must think of ways to make herself important," the psychologist would expound. "Then Tony will stop rejecting Mommy."
"Tony doesn't reject me." I tried to conceal my disgust.
"We're going to teach Mommy to understand Tony," he promised, ignoring my protest.
"I understand Tony pretty well," I insisted.
"He wouldn't act as he does if you understood him! When you learn to understand Tony he'll act like other children. Sometimes I wonder if you comprehend how different your child is. Why he doesn't even compare favorably with most two-year-olds!"
I was painfully aware. During the past year Tony's differences from other children had become increasingly apparent. He was still in diapers. I had assumed that when Tony's understanding matured sufficiently, he would toilet-train himself. That's what my other children did. Shortly before his fifth birthday we persuaded Tony to urinate in the toilet by feeding him full of watermelon. Then the entire family cooperated to entertain him as we stood him in the bathroom without trousers. When he finally urinated into the toilet, we cheered. Tony laughed with delight. Urinating at things became a newly found weapon - one of his games. We had no success with bowel movements. I might have appreciated suggestions from these child-specialists about toilet-training, but they seemed to have little interest in that subject.
"Perhaps Tony doesn't think highly enough of himself to want to give away part of his body," was Colonel Mann's only suggestion.
Imagine any toddler "not thinking highly enough of himself to want to give away part of his body!” Psychologists might suffer over their lack of self-esteem, but I doubt such a concept ever occurred to any four-year-old. I had recently read a psychiatric theory claiming Man's first love, even before love of mother, was love of his own excrement. I suspected some people might consider such a theory an obscenity if anyone but a psychiatrist uttered it. Nevertheless I resolved not to argue. I tried to sit quietly each week and endure Colonel Mann's psychology. I now had my typewriter, where I could take out my frustration by writing accounts of the ridiculous things psychologists said.
As Tony's fifth birthday neared, I realized he would not be mature enough to attend kindergarten, and I looked for a nursery school. One turned out to be a ballet class for four year olds. Tony would have considered ballet a preposterous activity, and we laughed at the thought of independent, super-masculine Tony in a ballet class. However no nursery school would accept a child with a problem. They were especially suspicious when I said Tony wasn't retarded, but I didn't know what was wrong with him. At a Marin County public nursery-school for retarded children, I tried to describe Tony to the teacher. She suggested he sounded antisocial. She pointed to a little boy who sat laughing to himself. He was a bundle of constant motion, playing with blocks with one hand and furiously twirling something with the other.
"That little boy lives in a world of his own," she said. "He's schizophrenic."
We asked Dr. Lavalle to mail a report about Tony to the Marin County school psychologist. Then Ike and I went to discuss the possibility of him attending the class. Dr. Lavalle's report lay on the desk before the school psychologist. I looked longingly at the folder. How I wished we -Tony's parents - were permitted to read what the authorities wrote about our child!
"Tony doesn't qualify for this program," explained the psychologist. "He's not mentally retarded. Children like your son are smart enough; they are just emotionally immature."
The class for retarded children would have been good for Tony. There were other handicapped classes Tony might have attended, but he was denied admittance to all the ones we were able to find. Life would have been easier for all of us during the next few years if he could have attended school. We should have fought for his acceptance in this special-education class. Maybe, like many people, we harbored a suspicion that retardation might be contagious. We were probably relieved not to expose Tony to the harmful influence of a class of subnormal children. I did feel a secret triumph at having his lack of retardation stated so officially, confirming my belief that doctors recognized some specific diagnosis. Finally I found a nursery school on an Army post. The teacher was a compassionate woman. I promised to stay by the telephone, ready to come for him if he ever became a problem, and my ardent gratitude seemed to compensate her for any extra trouble Tony might have caused.
While passing out cupcakes for PTA at Guy's and Sherry's school one afternoon, I heard of another unusual child. I got the mother's name and phoned her. We talked a long time and discovered our children had similarities. Both were slow to talk, toilet train and learn the things children accomplish before school age. Both liked to play by themselves. Her experience became painful when her pediatrician suggested her child's problems were caused because she and her husband weren't really happy. After listening to her doctor repeat that suggestion for several months, she and her husband weren't very happy. In fact they were sometimes at each other's throats over what to do for the child. They finally took him to a March-of-Dimes, birth-defects clinic, where he was diagnosed as suffering from minimal brain damage, or neurological dysfunction. The parents were told their child had an excellent chance of living a normal life. There was no medical treatment for the condition.
"Obtaining a positive diagnosis was a relief," the mother said. I was aware of the pain of not knowing. "They said Eric is artistic," she added. ('Artistic' was what I heard; I still hadn't encountered the term, 'autistic'.)
Tony was artistic, I thought to myself. He painted pictures on the windows with catsup and mayonnaise. He even made proper use of perspective. (An ability he later lost.) I'd never heard of artistic ability being regarded as an abnormality though. I envied Eric's mother her peace of mind. Any diagnosis would have been easier to live with than this mysterious unknown. Nevertheless I couldn't imagine Tony's diagnosis being neurological damage. He had a hypersensitive nervous system, he was responsive and alert, and his reactions were faster than those of the average child. His coordination was exceptional. He could turn his tricycle upside down and balance himself on the pedals while trying to rotate them. And he could scamper up any tree.
Ike's and my weekly talks with Colonel Mann dragged on. I hated the uncomfortable silences and struggled against an urge to blurt out something to fill them. Ike was usually able to think of some comment to save me from such impulses. One day no one could think of anything to say. Finally Colonel Mann turned to me,
"I don't know what your differences with Dr. Zircon were. Maybe they were just philosophical?"
I didn't say anything, but the truth was, I couldn't remember having any philosophical discussions with Dr. Zircon. In any case it sounded like a glib dismissal of that entire, awful year of group therapy. The thought struck me that maybe the psychologist had given up on us, and was about offer us an excuse to quit therapy. I didn't really believe spending time in a playroom with a psychologist was going to cure Tony of anything. However most parents try to provide a variety of experiences for all their children, and if Dr. Lavalle was willing to "treat" him for an hour each week, Tony seemed to enjoy his time at the clinic.
"This has been hard on my wife," Ike said. "I've tried to explain that it was a sort of probing to find out if there could be a problem in our family."
I remained silent. Ike was an admirer of my emotional stability and felt it must also be obvious to the psychologist. Ike didn't seem to understand how offended I felt by all this psychiatric "probing". I wondered if he'd feel such tolerant acceptance if the probing had been directed at him. We were all aware that Mother was the one considered responsible for a child’s emotional problems.
"And of course you take an especially close look at the mother when you suspect emotional problems," Ike conceded understandingly.
I felt I at least deserved an acknowledgment that all the probing had not revealed any sinister flaw in my personality. The psychologist was staring glumly out the window. Col. Mann was probably irritated by my “self-esteem”, which probably wasn't typical of other psychiatric patients. The silence dragged on. The psychologist wasn't agreeing with Ike, I realized. He still believed my mistreatment had caused Tony to be abnormal, but maybe he had decided to stop trying to convince us. Sitting through these two awful years of psychology had accomplished nothing! Our demonstration of obvious emotional stability had had absolutely no effect upon any of these psychologists, I realized! Perhaps the psychologist was about to give up on us, to declare me "cured", and look for women easier to persuade of their abnormalities? Something in me snapped. I didn’t want to be dismissed without an admission that I was normal. In that moment my personality underwent a dramatic change. Maybe it was what some people call an epiphany. Col. Mann’s ability to intimidate me disappeared, completely evaporated, and I was startled to suddenly hear myself boldly challenge him,
"You used the term mentally retarded last week. If you suspect retardation, why hasn't Tony been given tests?"
"The term mentally retarded doesn't necessarily mean mentally defective," the psychologist explained, ignoring the hostility in my voice. "Tony's development is retarded, but we can tell by looking that he's not mentally defective. The hands and feet of defective children sometimes develop differently for instance." I wondered why doctors bothered with any tests, if psychologists could determine retardation by just looking. "Besides," the psychologist continued, "we'll soon be able to give Tony an intelligence test."
"Intelligence test!" I repeated scornfully.
Ike looked a little startled. The psychologist looked annoyed. I actually had no specific criticism of IQ tests. The change I was undergoing was surprising to even me. From that moment I began to shed the overpowering feeling of intimidation I felt in the presence of doctors - or anyone else for that matter. If I hadn't encountered the psychologists, would something else have caused me to overcome my tendency to feel intimidated? Who knows? If I was undergoing a personality mutation, it certainly was not a random one; it was in direct response to my realization that psychologists were no more capable than the rest of us of judging a parent’s feelings, such as love or rejection for their children.
"For a year and a half I've listened to you psychologists accuse me of being a terrible mother. Now I want to know about those other children like Tony. What happens to them when they grow up?" I demanded.
"You are right," the psychologist agreed, ignoring my question. "We've said harsh things to you. It was necessary. We had to make Mommy do something about Tony."
What gave him such a right, I wondered. I was also fed up with listening to the psychologist's patronizing habit of calling me "Mommy". Could anyone imagine anything more bizarre than being called "Mommy" by a psychologist!
“It's important to remember we are all trying to help Tony,” Ike cautioned, eyeing me uncertainly, and obviously shocked by such an aggressive manner from his usually diffident wife.
I glared at him. "I don't know how to talk to psychologists," I said. "Other people just say what they mean."
"Don't you think I mean what I say?" the psychologist asked.
"I never know what you are up to. Most of the time you seem to be trying to maneuver me, hoping your psychology will have some effect upon me."
"Well, now --" Ike said.
“Oh, we've given up hope of having any effect upon you,” Colonel Mann said. “In fact it's a damned shame how much time and money we've wasted on you without accomplishing anything, isn't it?” Psychoanalysis is an expensive procedure, for which many people were happy to pay. The psychologist probably felt I should show more gratitude. But just because something costs a lot of money doesn't necessarily mean everyone wants some of it.
I scowled at him and continued, “No one will answer my question about what might happen to Tony. I'll bet the truth is, all those withdrawn children - or whatever they are called - grow up to be alright.”
The psychologist shrugged.
“Dr. Zircon was willing to use anything short of a rubber hose to make me admit I wasn't emotionally involved with my children,” I continued. “If something terrible happens to children like Tony, he'd have been delighted to tell me.”
“Maybe they grow up all right, but maybe they don’t grow up to be such desirable people.”
“I'm not asking what you think might have happened to them. I'm asking what did happen to them - if you even know.”
“Yes,” Ike agreed, “what did--”
“Besides,” I said, “I've decided what you consider desirable, and what I consider desirable, might be two different things. Who do you psychologists think you are anyway, to decide what people should and shouldn't be?”
“Would you consider it desirable if Tony grows up to steal cars?” Col. Mann demanded.
“I'll buy him a c--” Ike tried to offer, as he watched me and the psychologist with an incredulous look on his face.
I was aware that I was making Ike uncomfortable, but I seemed powerless to stop myself. “I don't for one moment think he will steal cars,” I said. “Maybe he is just going to grow up to be like me. You might not approve, but it's none of your damned business.”
“Yes! Except you talk!” Then he muttered under his breath, “. . .unfortunately.”
“I have an appointment,” Ike said, with a desperate glance toward the door.
Later, much later, Ike would say he admired me for standing up to the psychologist. At the time, however, he only felt dismay at the acrimony that had suddenly erupted. A part of me was actually as startled as Ike was by the change that seemed to have overcome me. Neither Ike nor I indulged in confrontations. We tried to be polite and considerate of everyone. Doctors and psychiatrists had been urging me to express my emotions openly, but consideration and civility were basic aspects of Ike’s and my personalities. Having exploded, I seemed unable “to push the Genie back into the bottle.” I recently read of a Dr. Gabor Matè arguing that repressed anger can contribute to all sorts of ailments, including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, multiple sclerosis and arthritis. Dr. Matè insists that emotions are a part of the body's natural defense system, and when we repress them, we interfere with our entire, complex immune system - and shorten our lives. He claims studies have shown that women in unhappy marriages, who express their anger, live longer than those who suffer in silence. If all that is true, then the moment in Col. Mann's office when my anger erupted may have added decades to my life, for I am ninety-six now. That psychologist may not have appreciated the particular emotions I expressed, but expressing emotion was definitely what I was doing.
“Is Tony psychotic?” I demanded.
“That word is difficult to define.”
“Do you consider him schizophrenic?”
“We considered it!”
“. . . schizophrenic?” Ike repeated in a shocked voice.
“And what conclusion did you come to?” I persisted.
“Well, we don't like to use labels.”
“Does or doesn't the term ‘childhood schizophrenia’ apply to Tony?”
“YES!” the psychologist shouted.
There was a moment of stunned silence. Our psychotherapy had achieved one purpose; I had lost all of my inhibitions. I no longer feared the psychologist. However the psychologist didn't seem to know how to deal with his newly liberated patient.
“I have an appointment,” Ike again repeated. I knew Ike didn’t have an appointment. He just wanted to escape from this embarrassing fracas. The psychologist had been about to continue, but stopped and looked at Ike.
“We have accomplished one thing for you in therapy,” he said. “We've pointed out a difference of opinion that seems to exist between you and your wife.”
“My husband and I are capable of living with differences of opinion,” I snapped. “We don't try to stuff our beliefs down each other's throats.”
Ike and I got Tony from the playroom and left. In the waiting room I noticed people eye us with curiosity. At times our therapy had probably become so loud everyone in the clinic had heard - and been entertained by it.
In the car I accused Ike, “I suppose you agree that I need a psychologist to tell me how to treat the children?”
“I didn't say that.”
“Don't start telling me what I said. I couldn’t even get in a word.”
“That damned psychologist said Tony hasn't grown up because of me, and you didn't disagree.”
“I didn't hear him say that!”
“It's what he really meant!”
“How the hell do you know what he really meant?”
“The Goddamn psy--”
Tony, frightened, reached over from the back seat and tried to hold his hand over my mouth. Ike and I stopped shouting and drove home in smoldering silence. During the next week we erupted into argument whenever we tried to discuss Tony. I had come across the term childhood schizophrenia and had read that it was unrelated to adult schizophrenia. I'd read some children outgrow childhood schizophrenia, but had been unable to find out what happened to those who didn't.
When we returned to the clinic the following week, Colonel Mann apologized. “I'm afraid I said things I didn't mean last week,” he said.
“And I'm sorry I became angry,” I said. “I know you’ve meant to be helpful, but I have hated every minute of this therapy.”
Ike asked again if the term childhood schizophrenia applied to Tony.
“Yes. But remember, there are different degrees of it,” Colonel Mann cautioned.
I felt a stab of fear. I was hoping that calling Tony schizophrenic was one of the things the psychologist hadn't meant to say. I'd never met a schizophrenic person, but even a mild case sounded ominous and terrifying to me.
Then Colonel Mann turned to me. “I've stated that if you want to know the cause of Tony's illness, you must look to yourself. However I want to emphasize again that we do not blame Mommy for what has happened to her child.”
Now that's big of you, I was tempted to retort sarcastically. I knew psychologists felt smug about not blaming mothers who don't love their children. According to their psychology no one was responsible for their own lack of abilities; our faults were all the result of someone’s psychological mistreatment (specifically mother's). We would all be emotionally perfect until someone "damaged" us. Dr. Zircon sat unperturbed while some of the women in the group expressed resentment about aspects of their lives. The only thing that really seemed to anger him was my insistence that I didn't harbor any such feelings. My hostility toward psychologists was apparent by this time, so I understood what hostility was, but I knew for certain that I felt no hostility toward Tony.
“Tony certainly does have emotional problems,” protested the psychologist indignantly. “We wouldn't treat him here at the clinic if he didn't.”
“Tony is obviously a happy child,” Ike pointed out.
“Don't let that happy smile on his face fool you,” the psychologist said. “There is absolutely no doubt Tony either is - or has been - extremely unhappy.”
He didn’t know whether Tony was presently unhappy or whether his unhappiness was something that occurred in the past? Was the psychologist admitting he wouldn’t recognize an unhappy child when he saw one? However, as usual, I didn’t think to make the point at the time.
“There are doctors who disagree,” I objected, remembering Dr. Jampolsky’s admission that, while he wasn’t one of them, there were doctors who believed children were born like Tony.
“I never heard of any. That psychiatrist you consulted last year sure got Tony's number fast. He phoned us here and asked about this autistic child we were treating.. . .”
The psychologist continued to talk, but I wasn't listening.
I'll bet that's what the mother I spoke to on the phone said about her little boy, Eric. He was autistic - not artistic. Maybe Tony had more in common with her child than I had thought.
It was nearly two years since I'd first taken Tony to a doctor, and this was the first time I became aware of the term 'autistic'. Psychologists had reason for their reluctance to use the term openly. With the phrase "not emotionally involved", they were trying to state everything euphemistically. Psychiatric journals stated bluntly that autism was caused by "maternal rejection", but most parents didn’t read psychiatric journals. However, some parents of autistic children were themselves doctors. Those parents did read psychiatric journals, and they vigorously protested the awful accusation. Plenty of rejection occurred alright, but it was mainly rejection of psychiatric theories by parents.
Today some people are speculating about the nature of consciousness. Is it an aspect of reality? How might it interact with physical reality? Consciousness and self-consciousness are two different things. Our bodies are capable of subtle adaptations of which we are not always consciously aware. The psychologists were devoting their lives to our subconscious, but they apparently believed it only causes pathology, such as neuroses and mental illness. My understanding of such matters are as limited as that of everyone else, but maybe someday such speculations will lead to a more sophisticated understanding of reality. Some evangelical atheists, probably fearing speculations about purpose might somehow offer credence to religion, want to forbid scientists from indulging in speculations about design as an aspect of nature. I wouldn't want to limit anyone's speculations – just so they don't try to impose them upon the rest of us as a “scientific fact”, a “truth” that no one is permitted to question.
- The original images may be found on this pdf copy of the book.
Current page: How can we claim to scientifically manipulate thoughts and emotions if we don't even understand how such elusive phenomena relate to physical reality?
- Wouldn’t volition be an essential aspect of creativity?
- Could an inherently creative universe, a living universe, ever be defined by mathematical formulas?
- How did the laws of nature originate?
- Are some scientific concepts too sacred to be debated?
- Are intelligence and creativity two separate and distinct processes?
- Are psychoanalytic theories profound? Or just convoluted?
- If purposeful creativity exists as an aspect of reality, why should we assume it is a process unique to human consciousness?
- Can the value of scientific knowledge ever justify enrolling people in research projects without their knowledge or consent?
- Exactly what technical knowledge enables psychiatrists to manipulate ids, egos and psyches?
- Should "normal" be equated with average?
- What technical knowledge enables psychologists to declare people emotionally abnormal?
- Are psychologists able to scientifically measure parental love? Or its lack?
- 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?
- Should doctors and scientists refrain from expressing skepticism about theories of colleagues in other fields?
- Do people generally choose the challenges which force them to grow?
- How can we claim to scientifically manipulate thoughts and emotions if we don't even understand how such elusive phenomena relate to physical reality?
- 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.)
- 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?
- 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?
- What is racism?
- Does free-will exist?
- Would obsessing over a traumatic event ever cure any mental illness?
- Could a creative intelligence be an innate aspect of all Nature?
- What would define economic theories as materialistic or non-materialistic?
- Is intolerance often the result of personal insecurity?
- Consciousness and free-will may be defining characteristics of all life, but do we have much understanding of what they actually are?
- Can we do other people's growing for them?
- Are Western democracies civilization’s ultimate achievement?
- Which would produce the most psychologically stunted individuals? Being emotionally challenged? Or never encountering any challenges?
- Could the purpose of life be to participate in the growth of the universe?
- Can science investigate and attempt to describe a non-materialistic version of the universe?
- Current page: How can we claim to scientifically manipulate thoughts and emotions if we don't even understand how such elusive phenomena relate to physical reality?