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Monday, October 11, 2010
Aspergers ... Brain / Mind ... Personal Reflections ...

There’s a nice article in the October Atlantic Magazine about Donald Triplett, the first human being diagnosed with autism. This is a well written article containing a very edifying human interest story; but most important (to me, anyway), it provides a valuable perspective on just what we do and do not know about autism. Bottom line here: we’re still not really sure just what autism is, despite all of the pontifications by the medical and psychological sciences pretending to have strict definitions and diagnostic tools. At bottom, “we know autism when we see it”.

Over the past year or so, I have ‘studied up’ on the question of Aspergers Syndrome and the dreaded “autism spectrum”. I have read articles and books, watched videos about autistic people, and have rubbed elbows with a group of young adults who identify themselves as “Aspies” or “high functioning autistics” (at a monthly Meet-Up group). Obviously I’m trying to learn more about myself, about where I fit in. Yes, I could pay a shrink a couple of thousand bucks to get a “professional diagnosis”, but I’d rather “take the journey” and save myself the grand or two.

FOOTNOTE: Although I do hope to use what I’m learning on my journey to help those who do have this condition, in some small way; I do realize that it’s not all about me.

So obviously, the article on Mr. Triplett is a valuable addition to my “journey”. But it triggered another thought about Aspergers and the broad spectrum of autism (if there really is such a “broad spectrum” versus a grab-bag of mostly-unique conditions stemming from complex inter-mixes of life history, family and social relationships, genetic factors, psychological factors, physiological factors, environmental factors, etc.). What if the emerging concept of “orchid children” applies to Aspies and others who are termed “high functioning autistics”? Based on my limited knowledge of the orchid concept (from another Atlantic article several months ago),

I can’t help but wonder if the difference between Aspies who manage to live independent and mostly successful lives, and those with severe mental and behavioral problems requiring on-going care, might turn on certain experiences from early in life (e.g., parenting style) which push one or another alternative response button somewhere in our genes. That influence might also require continuing supporting care from the family and community.

I myself had about the best parents that a kid could have had. They had a few quirks that I remember, they weren’t perfect; but the bottom line was that they were 1000% devoted to my brother and me. You could say that I experienced a “warm mothering style”, and that even if my father could be a bit “distant” at times, he was always there for us; he left us no doubt that he would always be in our corner. I have some behavioral traits and human interaction styles that hint at Aspergers. But unlike Mr. Triplett and many other children who are defined as “autistic”, I was always aware of and concerned about the people around me. Even if I was frequently befuddled about communicating and interacting with other people (and still am sometimes!), I always wanted friends and family and community (and still do!).

I can’t help but wonder if my mother and father managed to push some genetic button in me that set my neurons up in such a way that I like people (in spite of some other genes that make it difficult for me to non-verbally communicate with them). And I can’t help but wonder: had my parents utilized other “parenting styles”, might I now be more like the “Aspies” that I have read about and watched on videos and talked to at the meet-ups (with a lot of effort on my part!) . . .

Well, this is obviously just some S.W.A.G. on my part. A professional researcher on autism might laugh me off the map here. But it appears that the professionals are still in a fog about it themselves; recall that seventy years ago, when Mr. Triplett’s parents went to shrinks for help, they had no idea what autism was. It was only in response to the young Donald Triplett that Dr. Leo Kanner urged the psychotherapist profession to start a new category, i.e. ‘autistic disturbance of affective contact’. Over the past seventy years, they have studied autism extensively and society has became more and more aware of it (until today, it is a hot topic, even a political thing). But every discovery and every attempt to categorize what they observe seems to open up many new questions. I.e., the more we know, the more we realize how much we don’t know. So I will throw the “orchid Aspie child” hypothesis out there, for what little it may be worth.

And I will conclude with the idea that Mr. Triplett’s nice life story itself is evidence of “orchid-ness”. Don Triplett had concerned, devoted parents and a close-knit community supporting him throughout his life. He obviously had and still has many mental and behavioral limitations, but he has lived a long, good, fulfilled life. It’s a darn shame that everyone doesn’t get to have parents like his – and like my own . . . may they rest in well deserved peace (or even better, may they live on in God’s eternal love).

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:29 am      

  1. Jim, I think the tribute you pay your parents is wonderful. There are a lot of people who could definitely say less of their parents. (I am not one of those, though.) So, you pay a loving and beautiful tribute to your parents in this blog.
    However, I have a problem with the concept of “orchid children.” Perhaps there is something I am missing in the concept of the “orchid children.” But from what I understand of this concept I note the following: In some ways I agree with the idea that if children have good environments they will be “good children”, i.e., among “good” characteristics, they will have “good” behavioral patterns, etc.
    Yet, there is something that bothers me about that concept, and it is this. First, there is something of blaming the “victim” in this concept that annoys me; I think there’s already too much of that in our society.
    Then too: What about good parents (even very good parents) who have children who end up with serious behavioral problems? How account for such children?
    Too much of the “orchid children” concept is based on blaming the parents for how children turn out. While there certainly are children who are raised in seriously impaired environments and thus “turn out” impaired in some way behaviorally, there are also a lot of seriously (or even not so seriously) impaired children who have “good” parents. According to the “orchid children” theory these “good” parents would be to blame for their impaired children.
    I have experienced exactly this type of situation in my own life. I have raised a child with serious impairments both socially and behaviorally. I went through several years of having blame heaped upon my own head as the reason for this child’s problems (if only you would do this instead of that, this child would not have these problems). I swallowed many years of guilt, thinking I was somehow at fault. I finally came to realize that no matter what my best intentions and efforts, the child was simply “wired” differently. No amount of blame laid on me, no change in this or that method of child raising would help and/or change the situation. I came to realize that for lack of an answer to what the real problem was regarding the child, professionals heaped blame on the mother (parents) was the easiest way out for the professionals.
    I’ve come to reject completely that approach to children who are impaired in any number of ways. I thought that for a time the professionals had realized that they were simply wrong in laying the blame on all parents and had changed their approach; but it seems this old theory has taken on a new dress and is presented as a “new” theory. I simply cannot accept it.
    If a child is “wired” in a certain way, no amount of laying blame on the parents will help the child. In situations where children are not “wired wrong” they themselves very often come to realize the bad environmental situation in which they are caught and then may choose to change or make attempts to change. Otherwise, children who impaired because of “bad wiring” are not to blame themselves nor are their parents. “Nature” just got it wrong when building the child’s brain. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — October 11, 2010 @ 5:34 pm

  2. Mary, as Hilary used to say back in her First Lady days, it takes a village to raise a child. It seems to me that our villages haven’t been doing such a good job lately in that regard. Thus, a lot of orchids turn to weeds (and to ‘weed’ too).

    Comment by Jim G — October 14, 2010 @ 8:10 pm

  3. Jim, You have a point about the “weed(s)”. Your comment in its general form was something I was thinking about just this morning. I wonder about the children the boomers raised; and I wonder about the grandchildren of the boomers the children of the boomers raised. This prompted by a piece I saw on TV this a.m. on bullying in the schools. There was no such thing as children bullying other children until quite “recently”–well, in “recently” in my old lady terms. One such incident would be quickly and decisively quashed by the teacher until “recent” times. Now authorities seem to stand by and do nothing.

    There is a very large group of young people who seem to have lost any respect for any person other than themselves. In that respect there’s a big problem with “environment”, I agree. But I still worry about the “blaming the ‘victim’ ” syndrome, having been thru such myself. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — October 15, 2010 @ 10:40 am

  4. Another great post, Jim. A close friend of mine has been a valuable pillar of reality and strength as a result of the reality he dishes out, and he was recently pointing out to me how very far I have actually come. The reason for this bit of encouragement? I was feeling rather deflated about having to move back home because of air pollution where I was, and that put a spanner in the works for my Ph.D. Now I have to start all over again, head down south into the unknown. It is a scary thing, for anyone, let alone a tired, physically limited, middle-aged Aspie chick. But my friend gave me a run down list of reality – real achievements, not fancy fluff, that I can be proud of, and I realised that I have to thank my parents for much of this. My parents were not perfect, I especially had serious problems getting along with my mother, but now, in my middle age, I see much more than I used to see, about how truly wonderful my childhood was. Nobody even knew I was an Aspie kid, Dad himself was Aspie without knowing it. We were just odd. But we had so much fun being odd. And oddity was just a different way to learn and discover. And there was a lot of that in my childhood. Mum and I are ok now, and she is beginning to understand a lot of the mysteries which made her very frustrated and upset with me and dad – it’s Asperger’s Syndrome. My own journey is bringing mum a resolution too. I showed her a video of my presentation for an upcoming musicological symposium – it was a discovery for both of us. For her, it seemed as if a light was suddenly switched on after all these years in the dark – she understood why I am the way I am, and she even mentioned a few things about dad. For me, just hearing mum’s response was a revelation – I never knew how discombobulate dad and I made her. But we are both proud of the distance I have walked, despite my ‘handicaps’ and (mum did point out this) even *because* of them. My childhood was not hung up on therapies and socialisation programmes and special education strategies and ASD support groups etc. Nobody fussed over my oddity, I was just given space to BE, and I had a great companion in dad. Mum even gave me a special wall on which I could indulge my urge for inflicting graffiti. The rule was, only on *that* wall, please! Socialisation was a strict non-negotiable thing. A la Temple Grandin – we just need to learn manners, regardless! Today’s parents seem to be tripping over too many little pebbles along the road. I don’t refer to those with seriously Autistic children, who are a special brave breed, but those with mildly Autistic kids and who make a big fuss over it all. I cannot subscribe to that way of seeing things. I did great, I’ve come this far, I’ve done even better than many non-Autistic folks – and I owe much of it to good parenting, whether by accident or design, it was *good*!

    Thanks again Jim for for a good thought provoking post.

    Comment by spunkykitty — October 20, 2010 @ 10:01 am

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