“Radical changes of identity, happening suddenly and in very brief intervals of time, have proved more deadly and destructive of human values than wars fought with hardware weapons.”
—Marshall McLuhan, Laws of Media: The New Science (with Eric McLuhan)
Social behaviors are learned, and they are learned primarily by imitation (as opposed to doing what we are told).(There is an alternate to learning by imitation, which I will address later.) Imitation is how the brain adapts to its environment: monkey see, monkey do. Logically speaking, we don’t need to learn how to feel rage, sorrow, or happiness. These feelings arise in us naturally as a response to our environment. What we do need to learn is appropriate ways to express our emotions, desires, and so forth. We express through language, but language is far more than merely verbal. In fact, since verbal communication is the last thing to develop, it may even be the least fundamental form of expression. Many autists are non-verbal[i], and because of society’s bias towards verbal communication, they are often assumed to be mentally impaired because of an inability – or possibly in some cases an unwillingness – to master ordinary social communication tools.(In fact, in many cases, autists are communicating, but because of the expectation bias of their “caregivers,” they are not being heard. More on this later.) Primary among social communication tools is imitation, and it is through imitation that social language is learned.
Logically, there are two sides to communication, and communication has less to do with what’s being expressed than what’s being received. Learning to communicate isn’t just about finding the most natural forms of expression for ourselves, but about learning what’s going to be understood by others to get the desired result. For the sake of clarity, and at the risk of over-simplifying, we can posit two primary drives behind communication: expressing the self, and impressing the other.
For a baby, expression of self and impressing the other are inseparable. It’s one impulse, one instinct, both of which are necessary to its survival. This single function gradually separates into two opposing desires or drives, as the ego identity comes into form. Probably this happens when the infant, expressing its needs, fails to impress the (m)other, time and time again. This is perhaps why autism has historically been blamed – as in We Need to Talk About Kevin – on cold, distant, neglectful or unresponsive “refrigerator” mothers.[ii] Once these two drives are separated, we learn to adapt our self-expression according to what we hope will impress the other – parents, teachers, peers, or simply “the world at large.” Autists’ “low functioning” ability has to do, I believe, with an incapacity to adapt to their environment (to learn through imitation) so the two drives can begin to work together. They do not learn the rules (the language) of society, or of cultured behavior, and so they remain outside of it. For its part, society (parents, medical institutions, etc.) fails to learn the language of autists, and of children in general, with the result that both experience the rejection and incomprehension of the other. They are divided by a language gulf.
Most people have experienced the frustration of being a teenager, unable to connect to the values and beliefs that surround them (and the individuals who uphold them). So what about people on the autistic spectrum, even when high-functioning? If they are unable to communicate with others and be accepted by them, if all their attempts are met with incomprehension, impatience, at best pity and at worst violence, how must they feel? If nothing we do or say is validated by a coherent response from our environment, we feel powerless, ineffective, even “unreal.” The more limited our ability to communicate, the wider the gulf between ourselves and others, the harder it is to find any identification point in society, any way in. The question “Who am I?”— or even “What am I?” — remains answered. One result of this is that autists have a more fluid sense of identity. Another, less common, result may also be less beneficial.
All of us undergo the painful, largely incomprehensible transition from child to adult, and we do it alone. There is no manual for growing up. Often society’s values, or the examples of parents, teachers and authority figures, are not suitable guidelines for behavior. The result of this lack of support or guidance from the environment, for many “anomalous” teenagers, is that they have no recourse but to imagine themselves into being. Since imagination can’t flower in a void, images must be sought and found externally — in the culture at large. In order to belong, young people have to learn to imitate what they see, and to do that they have to find the best match for their inner experience they can. When disenchanted, disenfranchised, and alienated youths grow up surrounded by images and stories of other disenchanted, disenfranchised, and alienated youths expressing disenchantment by doing drugs, having sex at thirteen, performing satanic rituals, or shooting up their classmates — such expressions may start to seem like an appropriate and necessary form of communication. Comparatively, their own more individual forms of expression begin to seem insufficient for communicating the despair they are feeling. All the cultural noise drowns out the softer signals coming from inside them. If their peers are committing murder or suicide to vent their angst, who will listen to — or even notice — such softer signals?
[i] “I’m doing research in preparation for a series of articles on non-verbal individuals on the autism spectrum. According to my research, about 10-15% of people with autism spectrum diagnoses are truly non-verbal, meaning they don’t communicate using spoken words. The fact they they don’t speak, however, doesn’t mean they don’t communicate: many people who are non-verbal do communicate at varying levels of complexity using keyboards, assistive devices, picture cards and sign language. As I began my research, I already had a fair amount of information in hand about autism and spoken language. For example, I know that some folks on the autism spectrum do have physical issues, such as apraxia of speech, which make word formation difficult. Others have echolalia: they repeat expressions or phrases they’ve heard word for word, rather than creating their own novel sentences. Still others have strong spoken language, but have a tough time with “pragmatics” — the ability to understand and use language in a social context.” http://autism.about.com/b/2010/05/10/non-verbal-autistics-why-no-words.htm
[ii] “The term refrigerator mother was coined around 1950 as a label for mothers of children diagnosed with autism or schizophrenia. These mothers were often blamed for their children’s atypical behavior, which included rigid rituals, speech difficulty, and self-isolation. . . In his 1943 paper that first identified autism, Leo Kanner called attention to what appeared to him as a lack of warmth among the fathers and mothers of autistic children. In a 1949 paper, Kanner suggested autism may be related to a ‘genuine lack of maternal warmth’, noted that fathers rarely stepped down to indulge in children’s play, and observed that children were exposed from ‘the beginning to parental coldness, obsessiveness, and a mechanical type of attention to material needs only. . . . They were left neatly in refrigerators which did not defrost. Their withdrawal seems to be an act of turning away from such a situation to seek comfort in solitude.’ In a 1960 interview, Kanner bluntly described parents of autistic children as ‘just happening to defrost enough to produce a child.’ In the absence of any biomedical explanation for what causes autism after the telltale symptoms were first described by scientists, Bruno Bettelheim, a University of Chicago professor and child development specialist, and other leading psychoanalysts championed the notion that autism was the product of mothers who were cold, distant and rejecting, thus deprived of the chance to ‘bond properly’. The theory was embraced by the medical establishment and went largely unchallenged into the mid-1960s, but its effects have lingered into the 21st century. Many articles and books published in that era blamed autism on a maternal lack of affection, but by 1964, Bernard Rimland, a psychologist who had a son with autism, published a book that signaled the emergence of a counter-explanation to the established misconceptions about the causes of autism. His book, Infantile Autism: The Syndrome and its Implications for a Neural Theory of Behavior, attacked the refrigerator mother hypothesis directly. Soon afterwards, Bettelheim wrote The Empty Fortress: Infantile Autism and the Birth of the Self, in which he compared autism to being a prisoner in a concentration camp: ‘The difference between the plight of prisoners in a concentration camp and the conditions which lead to autism and schizophrenia in children is, of course, that the child has never had a previous chance to develop much of a personality.’ Some authority was granted to this as well, because Bettelheim had himself been interned at the Dachau concentration camp before World War II. The book was immensely popular and he became a leading public figure on autism until his death, but he became controversial after a biography, written 7 years after his death by a disgruntled cousin of a patient, claimed that he exaggerated his credentials and Dachau experiences. Also, three ex-patients questioned his work, characterizing him as a cruel tyrant. Although Kanner was instrumental in framing the refrigerator mother theory, it was Bettelheim who facilitated its widespread acceptance by the public and the medical establishment cognoscenti in the 1950s and 1960s. . . . According to Peter Breggin’s Toxic Psychiatry, the psychogenic theory of autism [i.e., that it is the result of neglect or abuse] was abandoned for political pressure from parents’ organizations, not for scientific reasons.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Refrigerator_mother_theory