The following is a blog written by one of our readers, Ms. Claudia Mazzuco. Ms.Mazzucco is a writer, researcher, historian, editor and teacher of the history of golf. She was born in Santiago del Estero, Argentina, and was diagnosed with autism in the summer of 2001 in London. Claudia is an advocate of the notion that it is worth knowing the differences between the symptoms of possible autism and problem behaviors that look like autism but they are not. At the root of a spectrum that keeps getting bigger and bigger, she concluded, is the tendency in American society to categorize an increasing array for normal childhood reactions to stressful life situations as proof positive of a neurological disorder. She supports very strongly scientific research, both for curing autism and helping individuals with Asperger to find acceptance and integration.
When reading Autistic Psychopathy in Childhood, we should keep in mind that it does not permit of adaptation to a different mode of thinking that an Austrian of the first half of the twentieth century was not familiar with. There is much to be afraid of when we look at the Austria controlled by Hitler during WWII. Dr. Hans Asperger has written his paper in the twilight zone of a distorted morality, thriving on intolerance, and fundamentalist-style extreme distinctions. Never for one moment did he imagine that his paper was going to be applied in an altogether different culture, that a group of Americans at the end of the second millennium would develop a strong sense of uniqueness and belonging on the basis of his writings and even christened themselves “Aspies.”
It is but too easily forgotten that throughout the life of Dr. Asperger, the Austrians saw the world with a distorted ideology; an ideology not particularly easy to grasp or live with. They were in a troubled alliance with the Germans. One could look at the devaluation of life and the threat it posed for those who did not conform to the Arian model of genetic superiority. The Germans assumed that a Jew was worth less than a Russian and a Russian less than an Englishman, and that a German was worth most of all. For if the Nazis held power by the consent of the people, a whole race would think that one man is worth more than another man; they think 1) they have the right to do what they like with the other, make a slave of him or even kill him in Auschwitz, and 2) as the master-race of mankind, the Germans also demanded the highest standard of perfection in its citizens’ behavior: a behavior which was not conducive to acceptance of those who are somewhat different. This prejudice underlies the whole logic of Autistic Psychopathy in Childhood. The Nazis related to non-Germans as if they were lower in reason than any of their animals. The mental life of a person would always be wounded in this sick ideology.
In thinking about Dr. Asperger’s paper, one must recall constantly that he wrote it in 1944, when the Nazi leadership realized that soon they would end in defeat. We know almost nothing about his family, upbringing, or whether or not he was indeed “sympathetic” with Nazism. I wish only to suggest that the issue we have to deal here is whether Dr. Asperger wrote his paper under pressure, when his urgent search for patterns and the dogmatic avowal of Austrian ideals could play out with dramatic consequences. He wrestle with ambiguity and tried to call attention to the gifts, abilities and chance for a normal life for people that he described as having autism. He wanted to distinguish them from the schizophrenic patients, who at this stage of WWII were at risk of being sent away in trains that would take them to the crematoriums. He wrote about autism at a time when it was right to kill a person for being different, whether it was a Jew, a Gypsy, a gay, or someone with mental illness.
Dr. Asperger was not quite as noble as Steve Silberman likes to believe. He clearly lived under tremendous pressure in a wicked time. It is in no way possible for me to conceive what the authors of the DSM were thinking when they invented a mental disorder with Dr. Asperger’s name; in fact, it is completely impossible for me to understand Lorna Wing’s motivations. She was the one with the idea. I’ve suffered from infantile autism and nowadays, as an adult, I face many challenges, not only in the sphere of socialization as such, but in several different contexts. I would define myself as an adult living with the effects of autism, but I’d not attach Dr. Asperger’s name to my self-identity.
We are on dangerous ground here, with self-diagnosed “autistic” people seeking to be considered as a natural neuro-variation of evolution, and admitting of no definition of autism but their own. It is not easy to deal scientifically with feelings. I am sorry Silberman had not properly appreciated the true sources of Asperger’s conclusions. He knew nothing about Dr. Asperger or the deep reasons for writing his paper so he was forced to speculate. Almost all the “autistic” people who were interviewed by him about their condition were committed believers in the reality of the syndrome. Freudians might interpret this as an infantile power fantasy, merged with a representation of their alienation from humankind.
I am not concerned with a cure for autism but with the psychological mechanism which has generated an “epidemic” of self-diagnosed and self-induced autism. Last month (May 13, 2016), on CBS This Morning there was a short segment devoted to early-stage research at Duke University of a cancer therapy that basically consists of genetically modifying the poliovirus to treat cancer. The virus was engineered by Dr. Matthias Gromeier, a molecular biologist at Duke who has been working on the treatment for the last 25 years. Gromeier removed part of the virus’ genetic material, which rendered it incapable of harming normal cells. That means it can only replicate in cancer cells, and in the process of doing so, the polio virus “teaches” the body’s immune system to find and destroy cancerous tissue that it normally cannot. It’s a promising new approach in the burgeoning area of cancer immunotherapy.
So the question in this conversation is, if we are able to help our immune system to fight cancer, are we not equally capable of teaching a person in the spectrum to understand people? We certainly are. There is a wonderful Talmudic quotation that says if God had intended man to be circumcised, why didn’t he make him that way in the first place? And the answer, with the wisdom of sages, is that man alone among creatures is created incomplete with the privilege of sharing with his maker in his own design. And that is true. Of all the animals, we are the one least dictated to by genetics or by nature. We have the capacity to shape ourselves for good or for evil. So that while we are endowed with certain “defective” genes, we can create a wonderful race of human beings and eventually overcome our neurological design.
The study of neuroscience is still in comparative infancy. It is fragmented. Far too frequently researchers fail to collaborate on general theories. But already the clear indications are that significant events in your life, including significant choices you make about how you behave, create new information pathways and patterns within your brain. Rabbi Barry Kislowicz said that the self-directed growth of children and their unfolding development resembles the natural process of a garden where, under the right conditions, the gardener can expect the flowers to bloom or the apple to ripen while he is relaxing comfortable at home. But if the flowers will not bloom and direct intervention is not an option that does not mean the gardener is helpless. His task is to identify and remedy the environmental deficiency. As John Medina wrote in his book Brain Rules, “our brains are so sensitive to external inputs that their physical wiring depends upon the culture in which they find themselves.” As a result, new patterns of wiring are being put down all the time. Physical changes take place within the brain and these changes are unique to each individual.
During the Christmas season, I went to see the movie Joy. The character of Bradley Cooper says at one point that you have to repeat something nine times before it goes through the mind of other person. Nine times! Better that than nothing. Being able to process information from an external source is a key element within the total humanization process. You won’t be fully human if you center your thinking and reasoning purely in yourself. You have to develop, consciously and deliberately, the habit of listening. No path to the mind is as open for instruction as the sense of hearing. When rhythms and modes reach an intellect through the ears, they doubtless affect and reshape the mind according to their particular character.
This process, in my judgment, is urgently needed today. To understand human self-consciousness as always embedded in relations between self, other, and world. We must therefore do the hard work in the present of engaging fully in relationship with another in all its reciprocity. Relationship entails a certain good will, as when we do things for those whom we love.