Window on Normalcy


Mockingly calling ourselves the Concept Exchange Society we meet once a month to hear from someone who has spent time researching and thinking about a subject. We gather in a volunteer host’s home to hear the fruits of considered thought. This month’s speaker has given thought to autism, an isolating mental affliction seen in children and characterized by lack of compassion and of empathy.

Janette’s presentation was enthusiastically received. Preceding her exposition she had each of us write a few words capsulizing our notions about the condition. Our cultivated ignorance was exposed. Many among us focussed, not on the debility itself, but on a rarety within it. The occurence of autistic idiot savants who perform feats of mental or musical gymnastics. Sensationalist journalism misrepresents this as genius. This phenomenon captures nothing of the isolation, the rage, the helplessness and despair that sufferers of autism experience. (See the New Yorker article on Adam Lanza, the murderer of 26 innocent children in 2012.  “The Reckoning” by Andrew Solomon in the March 17, 2014 issue. Adam was autistic.)

Janette told us of the noted psychologist Bruno Bettelheim. Imagine the horror inflicted on people by this man. He convinced a gullible public that the anguished victim mothers were the cause of their children’s psychological deformity. He invented ‘refrigerator mothers’; the theory that autistic behaviors stem from the emotional frigidity of the childrens’ mothers. Intending to bring good into the world, this man wreaked enormous evil and heart wrenching pain. Those who know the suffering mothers of autistic children will understand the barbarity of his theory. The mother is a victim; the victim of the frigidity of her autistic child. A child who is incapable of returning her affection.

Interestingly ‘blaming the victim’ is a common phenomenon. Many blame the poor for being poor. (They’re lazy.) The ill for being ill. (Not taking care of themselves.) The sexual abuser blames his female victim. Her seductive femininity caused his behavior, says he. The irony is that Bettelheim, himself, was a victim blamed. He was the victim of a Nazi concentration camp. Blamed, because he was a Jew, for the ills of the society that imprisoned him.

Janette discussed the insight of Simon Baren-Cohen that autism may be an extreme distortion of what is elemental to maleness. The illness appears far more often in males than in females. The primitive warrior knows that compassion is his enemy; empathy with others can only weaken him. Empathy can be a failing if your aim is conquest – in battle, in business, in politics …  Lack of empathy can have an evolutionary advantage; it can be a gift.

In our day, when it is no gift, it is kept alive by modernity; the wealth and technological advances of modernity keep among us autism and many other disabilities that would disappear in more primitive circumstances. Janette tells us that this is another of Baren-Cohen’s insights.

We are led to suspect that any mental aberation is a window on normality. It seems not unreasonable that we all carry within us mild forms of whatever is expressed in lunatic assylums. From my experience with normal people it certainly seems that way to me.





One response to “Autism”

  1. Michelle Simon

    Thanks for update Marvin–I tried to attend Sunday but was diverted. I have many autistic patients and know well the anguish their families suffer–and how some of these children often can problem solve amazingly well, but cannot communicate well –which often leads to enormous frustration. I wish I had been able to attend. There is some recent scientific data–preliminary–relating occurrence to prenatal events and genetic events–none confirmed to date. Much like the ongoing research into schizophrenia……ongoing for over a century!