Autism spectrum/A few impertinent questions/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.)
That evening I suggested to Ike that we quit the psychologists. I wanted to take Tony to the Birth-defects Clinic, where that mother told me on the phone that her little boy, Eric, was diagnosed autistic with minimal brain damage.
"Remember," Ike cautioned, "that clinic offered no treatment for the child."
"You've seen a sample of psychotherapy. Surely you don't believe it's going to cure Tony of anything. Think what a relief it would be to find someone who would discuss his diagnosis."
Ike finally agreed.
"Why do you want to take Tony there?" the psychologist objected when we requested a referral at our next session. "We've already told you there is nothing physically wrong with him."
"But you've never given him a physical examination," I said.
He frowned but otherwise ignored the point. "They might not be willing to see Tony when they learn we've been treating you for nearly two years," he said.
What a silly notion! Did he think the psychiatric clinic owned us? In any case, we could try. I was determined to search for a diagnosis. Finally, seemingly resigned that he couldn't dissuade us, the psychologist said,
"Children like your son get upset if their routine is disturbed. It would be unwise to interrupt his play therapy. We hope you'll continue bringing Tony for his sessions with Dr. Lavalle, although you should probably stop therapy while seeing another doctor."
We thanked him. Maybe we were naive not to realize we should break all ties with the Child Guidance Clinic before consulting another doctor. Nevertheless in this case it probably would not have mattered. Unbeknownst to us, autism had recently become the subject of intensive research. Many people considered scientific research more important than the sensitivities of individual patients. I was learning that if a psychologist said I rejected my autistic child, the medical profession would pay no attention to my protests. Col. Mann may have been willing for me to blame my dislike of therapy upon "philosophical differences”, but I’d dismissed the suggestion. If he wanted to accuse me of “maternal rejection”, I was determined that he’d have to do so in plain English, rather than conceal it in psychiatric terminology. However we would soon learn that the Child Guidance Clinic actually did exert a mysterious ownership over us that other doctors seemed to respect. In fact, the entire medical profession seemed to cooperate in trying to drive us back into psychiatric treatment.
Colonel Mann claimed he was unable to refer Tony to the Birth-Defects Clinic himself, but he told us the name of the woman in charge, a well-known pediatrician who also had a private practice. He suggested we make an appointment with her to have Tony evaluated at that clinic.
When we met the new doctor at her office, her common-sense manner invited confidence. She was older than me, and there weren't many women doctors when she completed medical school. She must be an exceptional woman, and her outstanding reputation must surely be justified.
"It's not that I don't believe in emotional problems," I told her. "However I don't believe emotional problems are causing Tony's slow development."
"The trouble with psychiatry is they have misinterpreted Freud," she said.
"Yes!" I exclaimed, eager to agree with anyone who suggested psychiatry might have misinterpreted something.
She examined Tony briefly and then commented, "Tony may not be an Einstein, but I see no reason why he can't be educated to lead a happy, useful life. Before doing anything else however, let's evaluate your son at the Birth-Defects Clinic and determine how much he is perceiving." She gave us an appointment.
The Birth-Defects Clinic apparently had some test to determine how much children perceived. If ‘perceiving’ meant noticing things, I suspected Tony did more of it than most children, but this was the first doctor to suggest our child wasn't extremely bright. Loss of faith in recognized authority is a frightening experience. Most people, reluctant to endure such insecurity, stubbornly resist liberation. I had managed to live without a conventional religion, but was clinging to my faith in scientific medicine. This pediatrician seemed straightforward and unimpressed with psychotherapy as a treatment for illness. I desperately wanted to trust a doctor and was prepared to believe whatever she said. The pediatrician had suggested doctors and psychologists were misinterpreting Freud. (I suppose declaring him to be just plain wrong would have been unthinkable in those days.) I certainly never found anything in Freud's obscure, convoluted, wordy formulas that felt relevant to me. Freud often insisted that the most likely cause of neuroses was an infant witnessing the human sex act. He apparently believed that just catching a glimpse of adults copulating could completely destroy a child’s personality. Too much excitement for an undeveloped psyche, I suppose. Freud once had a patient, Princess Marie Bonaparte, so emotionally messed up that he was convinced she must have seen someone having sex when she was an infant.
Her mother died soon after her birth, she assured him. She was raised by her father and grandmother, and no sex took place where she was an infant.
Freud continued to insist that only witnessing the human sex act could cause such extreme neurosis, and she investigated the circumstances of her infancy. When she interrogated one of her father's former grooms, he confessed to an affair with her wet nurse before Marie was a year old. Freud felt satisfied that her damaged psyche was thus explained.
I thought of my son Guy's attitude toward sex. When about six, after watching the squirrels in the yard, he asked, "How can you tell a mommy squirrel from a daddy squirrel?"
"Personally, I can't," I answered, not eager to get into such a discussion with a six-year-old.
"I guess squirrels must be able to tell the difference, even if people can't," he mused. "Otherwise you'd have two daddy squirrels sitting around in the same tree, each waiting for the other one to have a baby squirrel." I didn't correct him. Our family had all the inhibitions of our time. Unbelievable in today's society, we didn't even use the word penis. We called it a 'whot-tossie'. (Today everyone watches sex simulated on television, without apparent damage to anyone's psyche.)
While awaiting our appointment at the Birth-Defects Clinic, I tried to learn the meanings of the terms autism and childhood schizophrenia. I found psychiatric journals at the University of California psychology library, and spent several afternoons plowing through those ponderous volumes. I would have looked here sooner, but I wouldn't have known what to look for. I had only recently heard Col. Mann say the word “autism”. In 1943, Leo Kanner, a psychiatrist at John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, described a few young children with startling and unique characteristics. He called the condition early infantile autism. Although retarded in their mental development, the children appeared bright and alert. Their coordination was good, and sometimes superior. From infancy they showed aversion to being held or cuddled; they were not responsive to people and did not form emotional attachments to anyone. They displayed an obsessive desire for their environment to remain the same. Autistic children became upset, for instance, if the furniture was rearranged. Some had unusual musical talent and prodigious memories for such things as numbers. One child could quickly memorize entire scores of operas. They had little ability for abstract thinking. Some did not talk, and those who spoke were often echo laic, parroting back whatever was said to them. Their parents were highly-educated, and were described by psychiatrists as “cold“. Like me, most mothers of autistic children were reported to resist psychiatric treatment, an attitude psychiatrists viewed as pathological.
My medical literature search was interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Ike's overseas orders. We had forgotten that Ike, still a few years before retirement, could be transferred. New assignments had once seemed exciting. Some people might regard moving every three years a chore, but it was a life that suited Ike and me. However in our present turmoil such an undertaking now loomed as an overwhelming complication. Ike wrote the Department of the Army, seeking a postponement of the orders, and asked Colonel Mann to write a letter supporting his request. Colonel Mann agreed to write the letter but didn't show it to Ike, sending it directly to the Personnel Department. We wondered if Colonel Mann had revealed Tony's diagnosis. Knowing a sergeant in the Personnel Department, Ike managed to obtain a copy. There was an uncertain look on his face as he handed it to me. As I read it I understood, for I found the language offensive. Colonel Mann's letter read:
1. Anthony Vandegrift, five-year-old dependent son of Sgt. and Mrs. Vandegrift, has been under treatment at this child guidance clinic since May 1961. Presenting symptoms were those of an autistic child in that Anthony was socially withdrawn, fearful of people, essentially nonverbal, behaviorally inappropriate and indifferent to efforts at socialization. Difficulties were made apparent to the mother who nevertheless attempted to deny the severity of the boy's problem, which began at the age of three, during the father's assignment to Greenland for 13 months.
2. Treatment was initiated with the mother and son with only limited effect until the father's return 15 months ago. Since his return to the family, and with the aid of parental counseling in the Child Guidance clinic, there has been a slow but steady improvement in Anthony's adjustment, most apparent in increased verbalization, response to parental requests, and security in new situations. Anthony's change from indifference to interest in the world and people has been in large measure due to the presence of the father, who more than the mother has understood his son's problems and special needs.
3. Sgt. Vandegrift is now subject to overseas assignment to Germany where suitable educational and treatment facilities for emotionally disturbed children, like his son, are not available. Should the father go overseas alone, however, his son would be left without a principal source of security, understanding and model for learning in the family.
I never dreamed the medical profession indulged in such dishonesty. Much of it might be blamed on lack of objectivity. Psychologists see whatever they want to see. However it was blatantly untrue that I had started treatment, "with limited effect", before Ike's return from Greenland. Perhaps Colonel Mann described me as unfit to be left alone with Tony only as a favor to Ike - maybe his words were merely for the purpose of helping cancel Ike's overseas orders. But if Colonel Mann would lie to the Army as a favor to Ike, how could anyone believe anything he said?
Several years later I again managed to get my hands on some of Tony's medical records. They were sealed, but I pried out the staples and covertly read another report from the Child Guidance Clinic. That report was signed by some doctor I'd never met - written by someone who had never spoken to either Ike or me. It claimed Tony had been very ill when he first came to the clinic. The report stated that psychotherapy had helped Tony improve, but each time he returned to the family situation, he regressed - and that as soon as this became apparent to the mother, she suddenly withdrew the child from treatment.
Suddenly? After two years? How on earth did he define the word, 'suddenly'?
I had no idea why this unknown doctor would say something so far from the truth. It sounded almost vindictive. The report said they had diagnosed Tony as autistic but later changed their diagnosis to childhood schizophrenia. (Without ever informing us!) In the years after we quit the Child Guidance Clinic, we were never able to free ourselves from these psychiatric reports. Every time we consulted a new doctor, or tried to enroll Tony in a school, reports were required from everyone who had ever examined him. It was frustrating to know such defamatory distortions followed us. We couldn't refute them without admitting we had read them, and parents were never permitted to read what doctors and psychologists wrote about them or their children. I’d found Army medicine to be comparable to civilian practice. The people we dealt with were not bad psychologists. They were well-intentioned men, zealously promoting flawed theories. I am acquainted with other parents of autistic children who were receiving similar treatment in civilian psychiatric clinics. I knew of several mothers who managed to get a glimpse of their children's psychiatric reports, and were equally shocked at how psychologists can malign parents with little regard for facts. Psychologists have no special knowledge or talent that enables them to determine whether parents love or reject their children. They judge people the same way the rest of us do. How do I know? Because I read dozens, maybe hundreds, of psychology books and I never found anything giving me a special ability to understand the mental health of individuals. The devotion of psychotherapists to their beliefs is sincere, and their indignation when people don't acknowledge the validity of their accusations of ‘maternal rejection” is understandable. However Colonel Man did admit he was unable to determine whether Tony was presently unhappy, or if his supposed unhappiness occurred at some unknown time in the past.
Because of Colonel Mann's letter, the Army canceled Ike's overseas orders. For that, we were thankful. We continued taking Tony to Dr. Lavalle. The next week as Tony and I were leaving the clinic after his play therapy, I looked up and saw Colonel Mann come out of his office. He started across the waiting room toward me with a huge smile on his face, suggesting a friendliness I viewed with suspicion. I realized I should be grateful to him for writing the letter for Ike, but how could I pretend gratitude toward a man who had described me as such a terrible mother? I had survived my confrontation with him, but I hadn’t enjoyed it, and had no desire to repeat the experience.
Oh, let Ike thank him, I decided. Grabbing Tony by the hand, I turned and hurried out of the clinic, leaving the psychologist standing in the middle of the waiting room with his big welcoming smile on his face. I hadn't yet lost my faith in all authorities, but I had lost all my faith in these particular scientific experts – psychologists.
- The original images may be found on this pdf copy of the book.
Current page: What is faith?
- 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: What is faith?