Monday, January 25, 2016

Seeing the Spectrum

Interesting Article from The New Yorker

The world is unpredictable and disorderly. Sometimes your train is late; sometimes it rains when it’s
not supposed to; the drugstore doesn’t have the brand of dental floss you like. Boundaries are violated and rules are ignored. The green spinach on your plate touches the white chicken, and someone has bought your boxer shorts from J. C. Penney instead of from Kmart. People are hard to figure out. Sometimes they promise and don’t deliver; it’s not clear whether the expression on a face is a smile or a sneer, or, if it is a smile, what it’s about. People say things that they don’t mean literally: they tell jokes and they use ironic expressions. Other people’s minds are a foreign country in which we’re guests, tourists, or strangers, unsure where we are and what’s expected of us.

Some people accept all this as the way things are in an imperfect world, and they get on with life as best they can. Others find these unpredictabilities intolerable. To cope, they construct physical and mental neighborhoods where things are more regular and better arranged. Repetition reassures, whether it’s to do with your environment, your speech, or your bodily movements. People want these sorts of order with different degrees of necessity, secure them with different kinds of success, and, when they don’t succeed, react to failure with different degrees of despair and disengagement.

The world has always been unpredictable and disorderly, and some people have always found its ways unbearable. But there hasn’t always been autism—or its related categories, Asperger’s syndrome and (the current official term) autism-spectrum disorder. Autism was discovered, and given its identity as a discrete pathological condition, by two physicians working independently of each other during the Second World War. One was Leo Kanner, an Austrian √©migr√© at Johns Hopkins; the other was Hans Asperger, who was working in Nazi-occupied Vienna and whose findings were little known in the Anglophone world until the early nineteen-eighties.

The discovery of autism carried with it the insistence that it had always been there. Retrospective diagnosis is now something of a subspecialty for both psychologists and historians, and the catalogue of famous figures who have been placed on the spectrum now includes Newton, Mozart, Beethoven, Jane Austen, Kant, Jefferson, Darwin, Lewis Carroll, Emily Dickinson, and Wittgenstein. But the past was presumably populated with countless uncelebrated people who might have received a diagnosis. Some of these uncommunicative social isolates were likely misdiagnosed at various times as suffering from other psychiatric disorders—“imbecility,” “mental retardation,” schizophrenia. (Kanner gestured toward that history, borrowing the word “autism,” derived from the Greek for “self,” from a sort of social isolation then attributed to schizophrenia.) Sometimes they were treated with hideous cruelty, and sometimes with surprising indulgence. Others lived their lives outside historical systems of medical diagnosis and management, and were probably just considered “eccentric”—one of the accepted ways of being normally abnormal.

As a result of Kanner’s and Asperger’s findings, many people were transferred from one psychiatric category to another. In the early part of the twentieth century, children who would now be diagnosed as autistic were often dumped in mental institutions. Parents were routinely counselled to forget about their afflicted children—whose symptoms typically became clear at around two years of age—and to move on with their lives. Kanner’s new category came as welcome news for parents who could not bring themselves to institutionalize their children, and who were certain that there was an intelligent, feeling person locked inside what’s sometimes called “the mask of autism.”

Read the whole Article HERE

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