Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Mystery of Autism

The United Nations designated April 2, 2008 as the first Worldwide Autism Awareness Day, and after being bombarded by a series of totally uninformative television reports that began the day before and lasted well into the day after, I was intrigued enough to bring myself back up to speed on the topic.

Even though I've tutored autistic children in the past, I've never been able to get a satisfactory explanation from anyone as to what autism is or what causes it, and similar to awareness on most newsworthy topics, what passes for autism awareness is actually deference to authority on the topic of autism. To wit, the website of the Autism Society of America asserts that:
"Autism is a complex developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life and is the result of a neurological disorder that affects the normal functioning of the brain, impacting development in the areas of social interaction and communication skills."
A more apt description of autism would be "a diagnostic label that psychiatrists and various other interested parties use to describe children who present a particularly baffling complex of behavioral abnormalities that usually impairs social interaction."

One of the oft-repeated canards regarding autism is the supposed importance of early detection and treatment. However, there is no reliable form of early detection for autism, and no treatment options that makes any sense until a child starts displaying autistic behavior. At that point, the problem lies not so much with the autistic child as much as it lies with the false hopes and dreams of the child's parents, the unreasonable expectations of the child's educators, and the normative disposition of what is commonly referred to as the child's "treatment team."

As a childfree individual, I am of the opinion that the vast majority of parents are simply clueless breeders who have no business bringing children into the world in the first place. I say this as someone who has paid his dues tutoring autistic and SED ("Severely Emotionally Disturbed") children. On this note, most people that choose education as a career are not particularly qualified to teach children. In fact, during my work with "problem children," I had many more problems dealing with teachers and various other members of "treatment teams" than with the children they were supposed to be helping.

While they seldom associate the symptoms with autism, parents are usually the first to notice the behavioral abnormalities that will prompt a "treatment team" psychologist to render such a diagnosis for a child using the highly subjective criteria set forth in the DSM-IV manual. To wit, "problems with social interaction, impaired verbal and nonverbal communication, and a pattern of repetitive behavior with narrow, restricted interests." All too often, this diagnosis is then used to validate a number of counterproductive treatment options including psychiatric medication and removal of a child from a normal home and school environment to an institution where he or she can be warehoused and/or forgotten.

While there are no doubt some very extreme cases of autism that are fated to end up institutionalized for life, virtually all of the clinically diagnosed autistic children that I have encountered have demonstrated an unlimited potential for personal growth. Even so, it is the rare parent who can stand up to the so-called "experts" and state emphatically that there is nothing inherently "wrong" with his or her autistic child. Other things being equal, such children can and should be mainstreamed, and that should be the primary goal of all parents, teachers, and psychologists. Of course, this brings into question the very purpose of early childhood education, which is by and large nothing more than glorified child care.

I've never met anyone whose goal was to spawn an autistic child. Rather, as a general rule, would-be parents hope to spawn a child who will be more or less "normal" and "like them" who will grow up to "make them proud." What few parents ever realize is that children have their own lives, and that most children who succeed later in life do so in spite of the best efforts of the most well-intentioned parents and educators. In sum, with the possible exception of children who have severely crippling mental and/or physical disorders, virtually all children have unlimited potential. On this note, while autistic children do have special needs, there's no reason to believe that there is anything "wrong" with them, other things being equal. They, too, have unlimited potential, notwithstanding the mystery of autism that all too often overshadows that potential.

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