Remarks on the concept of autism

Is the child 'autistic' or just mentally handicapped?

1. Is the child functioning intellectually and developmentally at a much lower level than his chronological age? If yes he or she is one of the above. Go down to next row:
1. Is the child functioning intellectually and developmentally at a much lower level than his chronological age? If no he or she is neither of the above.
2. What social class do the parents belong to, or what social class do they aspire to? If 'lower class' consider the diagnosis of plain mental handicap to be more likely and go down to next row
2. What social class do the parents belong to, or what social class do they aspire to? If 'higher class' consider the diagnosis of autism to be more likely and go down to next row:
3. How does the child look? If the child is ugly or clearly physically abnormal in some way, and maybe looks stupid, e.g. with Mongol features, tongue lolling out, drooling, grimacing, squinting etc. consider diagnosis of ordinary mental handicap to be most likely.
3. How does the child look? If the child looks pretty, as if nothing could be wrong with it, consider the diagnosis of autism to be very likely. (Some of the children with whom the author worked over the years were attractive, e.g. C.W., J.W., D.R., and A.A.)
Way back in the middle Sixties I studied a young child who had been diagnosed as a possible case of 'autism'. It did not take much time or intellectual effort to conclude that the most parsimonious explanation of this child's condition was organic cerebral dysfunction, especially of the temporal lobes. This was at a time when organic factors were not prominent in the concept of this 'syndrome'. Nowadays everyone seems to realise that organic factors are pre-eminent in the 'disorder'. All my experiences since then have failed to make me look with any more favour on this so-called condition


If we look at the history of this idea we see that originally there was a feeling that the condition was caused by parental failings, e.g. the so-called 'refrigerator mother'. Had this element in the idea been retained then of course parents would not be queuing up to get the label for their child. Now that the condition is felt to have an organic basis this means that parents can quite happily accept the 'diagnosis' of the condition for their child. Paradoxically however some remnant of this early view seems to live on in the concept so that parents feel that there is some way in which their 'real' child might be brought out of this condition, happy, loving, normal and intelligent. This belief in a magic cure is typical of parents of any disadvantaged child but may be especially pronounced in the present case. It is true of course that the filtering through of the idea of organic causation into the popular concept may make the search for the magic cure as likely to be one involving pills, medicines, (often fringe types, herbal, homeopathic etc.) or crank diets, as to be one involving psychological methods. What of course is not understood is that neurons in the C.N.S., once damaged or destroyed, practically never regenerate, and that many of the child's handicaps are permanent. For religious parents, their search for magic cures may of course take them to such places as Lourdes.
Like other concepts of highly questionable validity, (such as the Nazis ideas of race, the superior Aryan type and the inferior Eastern peoples), the idea of autism seems to naturally find itself in company with very shady characters, be they people or concepts etc.
The label of 'autism' is used
1. to make parents feel more special and privileged and hopeful for the future, than if they were simply told that they had a mentally handicapped child.
2. to absolve the parents of blame in the production of their handicapped child, (note that this function depends on a later rather than an earlier view of 'autism'.)
(I have known a number of cases where parents have been highly motivated to have their child diagnosed as 'autistic' to divert attention from evidence that they may have been partly or largely responsible for their child's psychological condition by virtue of poor parenting, emotional or physical neglect or even abuse, (including sexual). The smokescreen might be used, not only to hide the truth from others, but to hide it from the person himself or herself ; there is usually some degree of self-delusion).
3. to get their child into a school which parents feel will be good for the child because it has special facilities and resources unavailable in a state day S.L.D. school. If the school of choice is characterised as a school for 'autistic' pupils this makes it necessary for parents to shop around amongst various 'experts' to find one or more who will stick this label onto their child.

Originally the diagnosis of autism was a rarity, and the percentage of children suffering from this was supposed to be very small. Now 'autistic' individuals are ten a penny and the term has become more or less a synonym for severe learning difficulty. To cover oneself silly qualifiers are in vogue, such as 'autistic traits', 'somewhere on the 'autistic continuum'', and similar pretentious phrases. Even worse are phrases such as someone having 'a touch of autism'!

Idiot Savant

There seems to be some sort of contamination of the concept of 'autism' with the concept of the 'idiot savant', the wise idiot. Nowadays of course it is not politically correct to use the term 'idiot',* even in the French and so the term is transformed into 'savant syndrome'. Here the individual who is functioning generally at a very low level is found to possess some special ability, at a significantly higher level than that of his other abilities or skills. So we have the mentally handicapped individual who is talented at drawing or playing the piano or in remembering which days fall on which dates in various years. I myself have encountered one or two individuals in each of these categories. By far the least useful is the skill in matching days and dates, the other two areas of skill seem much more interesting. This days and dates trick was studied by me in two individuals, and the feat proved to be very easy of explanation. We know from basic psychology that abilities in humans are relatively strongly associated or correlated. The possession of ability levels which are greatly different one from another is statistically unusual. It will be a highly unusual event when a subnormal individual is found to possess a relatively very highly developed skill or ability. So our 'autistic' students turn out usually to be subnormal through and through, with no relatively great aptitudes of any type.

* Recall that in psychology textbooks of times gone by, the terms, 'idiot', 'imbecile' and 'moron' were scientific categories depicting various degrees of mental incompetence; as times go by these become terms of abuse and new labels have to be found, so we got successively, 'subnormal', then 'mentally handicapped', then 'learning difficulty', 'special needs' and so on. What is referred to however does not change. So also with 'hyperactive syndrome of childhood' and 'A.D.H.D.'

(Go to 'idiot savant' for more on this topic)

Facilitated Communication, (F.C.), and autism.

We saw various studies of 'F.C.' in 'autism'. Monsters beget monsters. and should be destroyed before they breed. (Now of course the concept of F.C. is no longer accepted, I myself did a study at one of the schools I worked in to disprove the idea, back in 1987 but one is amazed that this silly idea and practice ever became so widespread, unchecked by anyone having the slightest knowledge of early psychology, e.g. "Der kluge Hans" and the horses of Elberfeld.)

(Go to 'facilitated communication' for more on this topic)

©2002 John and Ian locking