Autism spectrum/A few impertinent questions/What technical knowledge enables psychologists to declare people emotionally abnormal?
I attended Dr. Zircon's first therapy session, curious, but not particularly apprehensive. Since I was present "only to allow Tony to form a relationship with someone outside the family", as the psychologist had promised, I planned to be an observer, not a participant. The group consisted of five women, with Dr. Zircon as moderator. The psychologist said we could talk about anything we wished - or we could sit in silence if we chose. We soon discovered that sitting silently in the presence of a psychologist is highly uncomfortable, almost an impossibility. One feels compelled to blurt out something, anything, to fill such awkward silences. Dr. Zircon suggested we start by each explaining why we had joined the group.
I couldn't resist stating a little sarcastically, "My problem is that I'm not yet aware I have a problem." Surely the psychologist would realize how ridiculous his statement sounded when hearing it repeated.
One woman was the mother of a child with cerebral palsy and wanted a scientific evaluation of his capabilities, not wanting to expect more of him than he could achieve. The others just seemed unhappy. They had many complaints, not only about their children, but also about their husbands, their mothers-in-law, San Francisco weather and Army life. I didn't usually choose such unhappy people as friends and couldn't imagine what anyone might do to alleviate their discontent. If Dr. Zircon was willing to try, it seemed a worthy effort. Their children appeared normal enough, but didn't behave as their mothers wished. A couple of women complained about nine-year-old boys who didn't like baths. With a nine-year-old boy of my own at home, I might have been more inclined to drag Guy to a psychologist if he suddenly decided he liked baths. Although I wished Tony would grow up more quickly, I had no intention of sitting around complaining about him. Another woman was the mother of an eleven-year-old daughter who ran away from home and stayed several days.
"Of course we had her examined by a doctor when she came home," the mother said. "You know, to make sure that nothing happened."
I assumed she meant sex. That poor little girl! I thought. I couldn't imagine such a lack of trust existing between a child and her parents.
“Does anyone have any suggestions?” Dr. Zircon asked the group. We all sat in shocked silence. The psychologist seemed to notice the appalled look on my face. “Mrs. Vandegrift?” he urged.
I shook my head. I wasn’t accustomed to pointing out other people’s faults. Imagine believing your eleven-year-old daughter might be secretly having sex! I doubted the woman could change her relationship with her child just because I expressed my disapproval. I was confident that my daughter would turn to us, her parents, concerning any traumatic experiences. What could the psychiatrist possibly say to improve the woman‘s terrible relationship with her daughter? But he was supposedly the expert with the ability to adjust people‘s strange attitudes, not me. However even Dr. Zircon seemed unable to think of any suggestion in this instance. Most of the conversation in group therapy was less interesting - about what one might hear at a women’s luncheon. I did sometimes tell a few anecdotes about my children in an attempt to cheer up everyone a little. For instance the children in the neighborhood got together and sold Kool-Aid. We parents supplied the Kool-Aid - and then paid the pennies to drink the stuff, all in the interest of training our young entrepreneurs. When Guy was about five, he remarked one evening at dinner,
“Jimmy dropped my lizard in the Kool-Aid today, Mommy.” Then he added proudly, “But I got him out and he’s O.K.”
Apparently the Kool-Aid was O.K. too. We drank it. When I told this story in group therapy, a couple of women who seemed unusually concerned about germs shuddered instead of laughing.
I also told about Sherry, my feminine little-six-year old, preoccupied with fairy tales, who complained, "All the ladies in my story books marry a prince when they grow up, Mommy. But I don't know any princes. Not even one! Are they all used up?"
Sympathizing with a six-year-old's fondness for fairy tales and fantasies about a prince, I suggested, "There are still a few around. Prince Charles of England might be about the right age for you."
She wanted to know all about him as she happily made plans to marry the Prince of Wales. She wondered whether, as the Queen of England, she should wear her crown while sweeping the castle floors. She also speculated about a career, maybe she would do a little ironing to earn extra money, like Mommy did. (Picture the queen of England doing ironing! The poor lady wouldn't know where to start.) Sherry's brother became interested in her plans and asked if she would name her firstborn Guy. He wondered if there had ever been a King Guy the First.
"You don't get to name them yourself, silly," She said. "They come with little bracelets on their arms, with the names already on them." A close friend had recently arrived home from the hospital with a new baby, and Sherry had been a fascinated observer of the details. This story was more successful with the ladies in group therapy than the one about the lizard in the Kool-Aid. Other than such anecdotes, I had little to say. I had never been good at small talk, the kind of meaningless conversation many people seem to indulge in just to be sociable. However I was confident I said enough to demonstrate to the psychologist that I didn't have the kind of problems the other women had. While I was in therapy each week, Tony and Dr. Lavalle were in the playroom. Dr. Lavalle wasn't much more talkative than Tony, and Ike and I often wondered what they did together. The first day Dr. Lavalle left the playroom door unlocked, and Tony escaped. I came out of group therapy to find him making a get-away. The psychologist was racing down the hall trying to catch him. Nevertheless after getting used to the clinic, Tony seemed to look forward to his time there.
Tony had amazed us by announcing, "Tony talk. One, two, free, four, five. Tony talk." We were waiting for him to do so. One night he was crying in bed, and I went in to comfort him.
"All-the-way-home hurts," he sobbed.
Looking under his little toe, I found a cut under "the little piggy that went wee-wee-wee all the way home". Tony never allowed us to comfort him in ways we had consoled our other children. He was scornful of kisses as treatment for his hurts and preferred to rub catchup or mustard on them. After he began talking more, he occasionally complained about "pictures on the wall" at night. I suspected he'd had a bad dream. Once he came to get me in the middle of the night and led me into his bedroom. He indicated he wanted me to sit on the floor by his crib and hold his hand until he went back to sleep. He didn't want any nonsense such as kissing.
Tony was growing, but his differences from other children were increasingly apparent. Except for infrequent, startling statements, Tony said very little. He seemed to be learning to talk somewhat like an adult learns a foreign language. He was good-looking and of average size, but his appearance was immature. The term neoteny is defined as the retention of infantile traits - a prolongation of the developmental process. Autism has sometimes been suggested as a form of neoteny, and it would certainly have described Tony. In photographs he always appears younger than his actual age, and at the age of four he drooled like an infant.
One afternoon at home Tony found a bucket of paint and painted the washing machine, a neighbor's porch and our dining room floor. When Tony saw our horrified reaction, he ran and got a mop and tried to clean up the mess on the floor. He appeared to realize he'd done something wrong, the closest he ever seemed to come to experiencing guilt. That did seem like progress. Tony hadn't had a temper tantrum for a while. One day shortly before I started group therapy, Tony and I were in the car delivering ironing, and I didn't turn at the corner where he thought I should. He furiously threw himself over into the back seat and landed head-first in a cardboard carton full of ironing. (No seat-belts in those days.) I was in heavy traffic and couldn't stop for a few moments. Meanwhile my little tornado, upside down with his head in the box, was howling and frantically kicking his feet in the air. When I finally stopped the car and pulled Tony out of the carton, he seemed chastened. I hoped landing headfirst in that box had taught him a lesson, and maybe he was learning to control his temper.
I suspect mass hysteria might sometimes be an aspect of group therapy, with patients competing to see who could offer the most bizarre confessions. However nothing much seemed to be happening in our group. There was no evidence of “transference“; no one seemed to be “falling in love” with the young psychologist. My lack of awe for the psychologist’s science may have been apparent. Although I never had much to say, it is possible that my skeptical presence could have exerted some dampening effect upon the group, discouraging the usual psychiatric confessions.
One day Dr. Zircon announced, “We've all sat and complained for three months now. It's time we accomplish something more constructive.” He strode to the blackboard, a stern expression on his boyish face, picked up a piece of chalk and drew a circle. “This represents most of our children,” he stated. Then after a dramatic pause, he continued, “ . . .and this represents most of us, constantly exerting control over them.” He drew a slightly smaller circle inside the first and turned to see if we were following his scientific presentation. “They rebel and break out!” With a flourish he erased parts of the larger circle and regarded the group gravely.
"And this," he said, turning back to the blackboard and carefully drawing another big circle, "represents another of our children. We assert no control over this child." The psychologist drew a tiny circle in the middle. "He is frightened and angry." Dr. Zircon seemed to make a concerted effort to avoid looking at any of us. However he then printed my name under these last circles and added the words, FRIGHTENED AND ANGRY. This indictment was apparently too horrific for the psychologist to even look at the culprit, much less repeat my name aloud.
Stunned, I stared at the blackboard. It never occurred to me that the psychologist hadn’t recognized my obvious emotional stability by this time. I'd assumed the psychologists were trying to find out if there was something wrong with Tony. Instead, they apparently concluded that I was the abnormal one – and that my deviation had destroyed Tony's personality! During my forty-one years people had liked me. I was polite and considerate, and there was no reason why they shouldn't. Never in my wildest dreams had it occurred to me that anyone might have such an awful opinion of me! Oh, there was the young Black man in Atlanta who refused to sign my petition. However his look of hatred hadn't hurt. It wasn't personal; it had been directed at something I represented, not me. It had taken me a while to realize what I wanted to do with my life, but being a wife and mother was the role I'd finally chosen. I could have been a good enough architect, but that had been an unimportant, temporary occupation. Being a mother was how I defined myself. When the children became old enough to start school, I'd expected to look for another job as a draftsman. In the meantime I'd found ways to earn money and still remain a stay-at-home mom. Now, after knowing me for three months, Dr. Zircon was calmly and impersonally declaring me to be such an inadequate mother that I had warped my little boy's emotional growth and caused him to be defective. I suppose Dr. Dingle's awful belief should have become obvious to me by this time, but the idea that I might reject my children had been too bizarre a concept to even occur to me. The other women were watching me solemnly. I sat in shocked silence, barely aware of whatever happened during the rest of the hour. “We won't meet again until after New Year,” I heard the psychologist say as he dismissed us.
I collected Tony from his play therapy, and we went out on the little porch in front of the clinic to wait for Ike to come for us. The other women said goodbye matter-of-factly, showing no condemnation of me, as though Dr. Dingle's characterization of me as such a terrible mother that I had stunted Tony's growth was nothing unusual. The Army hospital consisted of one story buildings about forty feet apart, with a hall connecting them so people didn't have to go outside to get from one building to another. As I stood there on the little porch of the Child-Guidance building in my daze of emotions – anger, hurt, resentment and disbelief – I looked down to the next building and saw Dr. Zircon come out the door, and walk back to his car which was parked in front of the Child Guidance Clinic. Had he gone to all that trouble of walking down the hall and exiting from that other building so as to avoid walking by me? He must have sensed the explosive turmoil into which his accusation had plunged me, and he wasn't prepared to deal with it. In time, I came to realize that this therapy was as traumatic for Dr. Zircon as it was for me. We were both victims of the bizarre belief that autism was caused by maternal rejection. The psychologist was devoting his life to 20th Century psychology, and the commonly held belief that a person's subconscious thoughts could destroy their sanity. Apparently he was also convinced that my subconscious thoughts were powerful enough to destroy my child.
When Ike arrived, I was still in such a daze that I couldn't bring myself to discuss what Dr. Zircon had said to me. I still hadn’t heard the terms “maternal rejection” or "autism", and I didn't have the vocabulary to attempt a psychiatric discussion. I wasn’t even sure how some of those psychiatric terms in the psychology books were pronounced. I went home to a miserable Christmas holiday. Acquiring a typewriter was the bright event of that Christmas. It was a little red portable, and I found it in a thrift shop for just a few dollars. I wrapped it and put it under the Christmas tree, claiming it was for the children. It quickly became apparent that typewriter was for my use. From that time, when I couldn’t summon the courage to defend myself to the psychologists, I did it at my typewriter. I felt a burning urge to protest against Dr. Zircon’s indictment of me. Originally this story was just three pages, and I wasn’t much of a writer. However I went over it hundreds of times, adding a word, sentence or paragraph here and there, and writing grew to be one of my most rewarding activities. Writing changed my life, I suppose in the same way that psychologists hope psychotherapy would change people’s lives. I managed to become a little more articulate.
I determinedly continued to try to understand psychology books. Finding an outlet for my resentment also allowed me to continue group therapy when it resumed after the first of the year. I valued whatever benefit Tony seeing Dr. Lavalle might have. However, for me, therapy became a dreaded, weekly ordeal. Dr. Zircon often mentioned that we were all too emotionally involved with our children - except one of us wasn't at all involved. Most people would probably consider being "over protective" a lesser fault than "rejection". The other children didn’t behave as their mothers wished, but none of them were developing abnormally, so obviously my “rejection” was regarded as more malignant than the other women’s treatment of their children. I’m sure the other mothers agreed that loving their children too much was preferable to the monster Dr. Zircon had declared me to be, a mother who felt nothing for her children. In any case, I was determined not to give Dr. Zircon the satisfaction of arguing over his ridiculous allegation. If that was his opinion, after knowing me all this time, I doubted anything I might say would change it. I wasn't particularly verbal to begin with, and that psychologist sitting around waiting to pounce on my every word as a sign of some abnormality didn't encourage idle chatter. Other than an occasional question or comment to the other women, I sat silently each week and grimly endured the hour. Then I went home and took out my resentment at my typewriter.
One day I reported that Tony didn't seem to have tantrums anymore. An unmistakable look of annoyance passed across Dr. Zircon's face. Why should he be disappointed for Tony to stop having tantrums? Was he trying to prove some theory? Did he not want Tony to mature, except in response to his psychiatric treatment? I remembered the silly "cures" of highly intelligent, "withdrawn" children described in old psychology books. When Tony grew up to be such a child, I would feel obligated to protest he was not "cured" by something so absurd as his mother's participation in group therapy.
The group had been meeting for about five months when Dr. Zircon asked all the husbands to come in for an interview. Ike, of course, was willing to do anything that might help Tony. He spoke with the head of the clinic, a Col. Mann. Ike reported that the psychologists were dissatisfied with my behavior in therapy. They protested that I didn't talk, as the other women did. Surely the psychologists didn't actually approve of all that complaining! I remembered Dr. Zircon had promised that my attendance in the group was "only to allow Tony to form a relationship with someone outside the family". The thought of his duplicity galled me.
Ike mentioned to Col. Mann that I'd read every psychology book in the local libraries.
"She did? She didn't tell us that!" the colonel exclaimed. "You see! Your wife doesn't tell us anything."
After that Ike went with us to the clinic every week and talked to Col. Mann. Ike didn't mind. In those days mother was considered responsible for a child's emotional development, and no one was really accusing Tony's father of anything. There were very few female therapists at that time. The notion that a mother might warp her child's growth by a subtle, subconscious rejection was a theory initiated by men and inflicted upon women by men. They made the same hurtful accusation against mothers of schizophrenics. But schizophrenia is diagnosed later in life, after the damage was supposedly already done, and mothers of schizophrenics weren’t subjected to psychotherapy, as mothers of autistic children were. Still, mothers of schizophrenics must have suffered, fully aware of society's belief that they were considered responsible for their child’s illness. Schizophrenics were openly encouraged during therapy to express resentment toward their mothers. The whole concept was blatant sexism, but I wasn't much of a feminist; I was usually content with the role society assigned to women. I certainly didn’t feel qualified to argue with such an authority as a psychologist. I sat through group therapy in grim silence each week. Ike, thank heavens, continued to express confidence in my relationship with the children, and I’m not sure I ever managed to make it clear to him exactly what Dr. Zircon was implying. I never felt anything but revulsion at Dr. Zircon’s unspecified accusations, but I wonder how many therapists succeeded in convincing mothers that they felt a secret, subconscious rejection of their autistic child? How many just bought into some complicated, Freudian, psychoanalytic scenario suggested by a therapist?
One day as I listened to the other women, I realized Ike was the only father still coming to the clinic every week. Some of these women had complained about their husbands' treatment of their children. I, on the other hand, had reported Ike to be the kindest, most patient and sensitive of fathers. Yet Ike seemed to be the only father in therapy! Did they consider us the most dysfunctional family of the group? Actually, I don't think the term “dysfunctional family” was yet fashionable, but there was no doubt the psychologists believed something was seriously wrong with us. Col. Mann had again protested to Ike that I was uncommunicative, again bringing up the fact that I hadn't even told them I read psychology books. I had started reading psychology books when that first pediatrician seem to suggest a psychiatric interest, and many of those books seemed pretty weird and implausible. I assumed they were out of date, and these psychologists, members of the medical profession, must have more recent scientific information available to them - something that I hadn’t yet found in the psychology books. However I didn't feel up to disputing, or even discussing psychology with a certified medical psychologist!
"You don't believe I caused Tony to be abnormal, do you?" I would tearfully ask Ike.
"No, of course not."
"Why won't they tell us what is wrong with Tony? They've said he isn't retarded. They insist he is above average intelligence. What else could be wrong with him?"
"I don't know. Why don't you ask Dr. Zircon? Col. Mann complains that you don't talk enough."
Ike had little interest in reading psychology books, and was relying upon the professionals, "the scientific experts", for Tony's diagnosis and treatment. I had never initiated a confrontation with anyone. Oh, I had probably exchanged angry retorts with my siblings when I was small, but that was long ago, and I didn't remember them. If my parents ever indulged in emotional confrontations, they did it in private. I had no experience with such altercations, and I wondered if I would be able to suppress my anger and resentment enough to ask Dr. Zircon such questions without turning it into a shouting match? I couldn't imagine how I might possibly come out ahead in such an exchange with a glib psychologist, someone who was capable of talking circles around me.
Fifty years later, psychiatry has admitted its error, and no longer accuses mothers of rejecting their autistic children. Mental deviations obviously exist. But until we achieve a better understanding of them, perhaps we should be careful about whom we grant the authority to declare people to be “emotionally abnormal”.
Understanding intelligence, and how our brain works, is still primitive. Simon Barron-Cohen's theory that autism involves a super-masculinized, analytical brain would seem to indicate some consensus that a difference presently exists between the average woman's brain and the brain of the average male. We live in a changing society. Today it is becoming more common for women to become doctors, engineers, CEO’s and scientists. As men and women lead more similar lives, will those statistical differences between their brains gradually lessen? Will some women be born more analytical, and some men become more intuitive? Today, autism is five times more common in boys than in girls. Will that difference lessen with more girls diagnosed autistic? Do women engage in more masculine activities, such as engineering, because their brains have accidentally changed? Or will their brains change because of their changing life styles?
- The original images may be found on this pdf copy of the book.
Current page: What technical knowledge enables psychologists to declare people emotionally abnormal?
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