Autism: the “genius” locked inside

The earliest toxic misconception of autism was Bruno Bettelheim’s psychegentic one: that well-educated parents who worried that their children were not developing normally would metaphorically reject them. The result was what Bettelheim called an “empty fortress”–an interior mental space in which these children took shelter from this parental rejection. These children were normal at birth and continued to be normal inside, but now it took psychoanalysis to unlock them. They were taken away from their parents and put in the hands of “specialists.” The cure rate was… questionable.

Today’s toxic misconception of autism is a variation on some of these themes. Well-educated parents, when they hear the diagnosis, worry that their children are not of normal intelligence–especially if language is absent or delayed. But now, instead of turning to psychoanalysis, some of these parents turn to facilitated communication or one of its newer variants, Rapid Prompting Method (RPM) and Spelling to Communicate (S2C).  Just like that earlier pseudoscience, these newer pseudosciences will “unlock” their children–and do them a terrible disservice in the process. In an eerie echo of Bettelheim’s notions of parental rejection, these methods, by replacing these children’s voices with those of the facilitators, reject who these children really are. 

But there are some differences. In particular, what’s unlocked has changed. Earlier, it was good enough to have normal intelligence; today’s well-educated parents crave geniuses. And so that’s what RPM and S2C provide. As J.B. Handley put it in Underestimated, “These kids aren’t cognitively disabled. They are extremely smart.”

The grain of truth is that many of these kids are quite smart in non-linguistic ways–experts in jigsaw puzzles and/or rote memorization and/or math problems and/or patterns and/or calendrics and/or visual thinking and/or Ravens Matrices. And the other grain of truth is that there may be even more that can be unlocked, if only we can find a way to teach (not “unlock”) language and literacy. 

… I write all this (much more than I had originally intended) simply to re-introduce another Out in Left Field Post from 9 years ago that I just reposted today.

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