Exploring the Social Imagination

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Autisim in the Social Imagination

My son is on the autistic spectrum.

As a sociologist and social psychologist, having a son with autism, I now recognize it as a social dysfunction on my part as much as it is hereditary. As we can read the historical narrative, the word autism first took its modern sense in 1938 when Hans Asperger of Vienna Univeristy Hospital became curious of Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler's view in 1910 as an infant condition with symptoms of  schizophrenia. Asperger was investigating this possibility. However, it wasn't until Leo Kanner of John Hopkins introduced the label early infantile autism in a 1943 report of 11 children with striking behavioral similarities.

Almost all the characteristics described in Kanner's first paper on the subject, notably "autistic aloneness" and "insistence on sameness", are still regarded as typical of the autistic spectrum of disorders. Unfortunately, this led to decades of confused terminology like infantile schizophrenia, and child psychiatry's focus on maternal deprivation led to misconceptions of autism as an infant's response to "refrigerator mothers".

Starting in the late 1960s autism was established as a separate syndrome by demonstrating that it is lifelong, distinguishing it from intellectual disability and schizophrenia and from other developmental disorders, and demonstrating the benefits of involving parents in active programs of therapy. As late as the mid-1970s there was little evidence of a genetic role in autism; now it is thought to be one of the most heritable of all psychiatric conditions.

Speaking firstly as a social psychologist, I can say that I agree with it being a heritable psychiatric condition. Not biologically inherited but learned as the mother and father impart information to the infant that is unstable social information. Speaking as a sociologist, the source is the same. I can say this as a social scientist only as therein lies my expertise. So, to continue.

Social reality is learned. I mean that everything we know is socially constructed. If there is a glitch in that matrix, the social actor 'person' will reflect it. We have yet to imagine all the information we convey, input our children and it starts before the child is even born, still in the womb. Information comes in many packages; verbal, gestural, bodily space between objects and including people, language, symbols, and social interaction with others. When a mother especially, is socially uncomfortable, she conveys that to her child. When a father is socially reckless, he conveys that to his child. When parents are busy with work as it being their priority, the child feels this. When parents are unhappy as spouses, the child feels this.

Many psychological problems that children and people have can be traced back to the relationship with their mother and or lack of as well as growing up years with parents or no parents in the equation. We can better understand then why more and more children are being diagnosed with autism. Just take a look at society and see what it values, and what symbols are used to convey those values. Yes, we can see women as mothers, but in my observations, motherhood has a second position to society's value for career and money.

When I was pregnant, I was unhappy, I was insecure, I did not have supportive family nearby. I was also working on my Master's degree. I lived in a foreign country out of my social sphere of identity. I was preoccupied with my life as well; studying and working. I wanted my baby and I was sure I would be as good a mother as ever. Though, I cuddled my son, I was unhappy, sad and lonely. I was working long hours and studying long hours. He had to be left with babysitters and sometimes in day care centers where many babies were left while mothers worked. My son was a late walker, talker; and then a stacker, a flapper (going about flapping his hands). After that, he watched running water and later on switched to flags waving. Oddly, he was/is the opposite of being anti-social. He was and still is overtly social. He is too willing to like anybody and everybody. People don't understand when he just sits down next to them on the bus or in the park and starts talking to them like he has known them all his life. And, then he may even ask for a bite of their sandwich or chips if they have.

As a sociologist of family life and its impact on society, I observe that a mother has to be fully supported. She needs confirmation from her spouse, parents and peers that her job is important. And, that it is the only job she ever needs to have or do. This does not mean she cannot imagine working outside the home. I am saying that she needs to know the importance of motherhood and that it is not wise to try to do both; especially if extra support is not readily available. Support which comes through in language, symbols and contact with immediate family and even neighbors as in the community. I did not have this. Though I had extended family and friends, they were not of my familiarity. I suddenly realized that I was an American and they were not. Expectations were different in terms of family life 'cultural data' that compounded my own preoccupation with a career and having a child whom I should have given my100 percent attention to.

What is the inherited aspect of autism? Its the same process of learning - glitches in socialization passed on. Social dysfunction is passed on in essentially corrupted blocks of information (information with error). It appears biological yet it is not. It is social. Socialization begins with the mother and then extends to the father and others. Being a good parent is learned. If that 'good' information is not passed on, it pops up again and again, generation after generation. Today, it is more difficult to accept this.

Socially, family and motherhood becomes less valued. Women are encouraged to be self sufficient. Many women are being told that they don't have to be 'just moms'. Hence, some decide not to have children and some think they can both worlds as in do it all. Maybe, there are some but autism grows and professionally speaking, it is because motherhood is not at the apex of most women's dream/goal nor is it society's. Remember, autism is lifelong- if you know someone who is pregnant. Support them with love and friendship 'socially' because that child will be a member of society.

Society needs to embrace mothers and I think we will see autism decline. 


No comments :

Post a Comment