About the time my eldest was born, it seemed like everyone was coming down with autism. I’m not sure I’d even heard of such a thing during my youth, and I asked a friend: Why the sudden surge?
Improved diagnosis, she explained — think back to the weird kid at school that always got picked on.
There was a darker side to that sudden surge of public disability, and to make my case let’s start with the stories you’ve never read.
(Hint: If you loved The Secret Garden, this might be where we part ways.)
There Was a Time Before Curetopia
I ran across this survey of disability as presented in 19th & 20th century children’s literature and read it with morbid fascination, because I’m always thinking, “Why are these stories so, so pathetic? Do people really like to read this stuff? Really?”
It turns out that the answer lies not with 19th century thinking, but with the 20th:
Thus, the treatment of disability in 19th and early 20th century children’s literature is more complex than it appears at first sight. . . .
. . . It is interesting that the portrayal of disabled characters as saintly invalids, or as headstrong girls being tamed through the discipline of suffering, seems more prevalent in the surviving books than in those long out-of-print. Nineteenth century books currently in print reflect not only the attitudes of the authors and of 19th century readers, but also those of the later readers who have kept them in print. The saintly invalid and the tamed headstrong girl may, after all, have been demanded as much or more by the mid- and late- 20th century reader than by the 19th century reader. . . .
. . . The other reason may concern attitudes to disability as such. In the 19th century, permanent and temporary disabilities were common and may have differed only subtly from the frequent ill health experienced by many people. Although disabled people in all periods have often been treated suspiciously or condescendingly as “different”, disability in the 19th century may have been seen as more part of the “common condition” than at a later stage. In the 20th century, disabilities may have been seen as more treatable and preventable, at least in young people; moreover it was seen as more appropriate — or at least more possible – to consign people with disabilities to institutions. Thus, disabled characters may have been seen as more rare and more “abnormal”: requiring either unusual saintliness or a miracle cure to justify their presence.
From The Treatment of Disability in 19th and Early 20th Century Children’s Literature, Ann Dowker, Dept of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford, Disability Studies Quarterly, Winter 2004, Volume 24, No. 1
When in Doubt, Blame Darwin
I’m not sure Charles Darwin is actually to blame, though I’ve heard he had his unsavory side. Who didn’t? The thing you need to know about is the eugenics movement of the late 19th and early 20th century. All the leading lights of the American establishment were buying in to it. Go ahead and pause right now and read the Wikipedia article if you haven’t already. Or take a look at the Eugenics Archive for chilling documentation.
It was all just fun-n-forced-sterilization until the Nazis got so crass about it. In their zeal they ruined a perfectly good movement to purify the human race by weeding out the undesirables. Luckily the important lesson had already sunk in, and during the post-war period, Americans were fully convinced that disabled children had best be avoided.
The method that worked for a while was institutionalization. That got old, though, because it turns out that children are meant to be reared by their parents, and bad things happen when you try to make some other method the new normal. By the time I was growing up, you could meet actual children with disabilities at school. If you were a child in the special class, anyhow. Otherwise, you could maybe catch glimpses of the special lunch table.
(Unless they had the yet rarely-diagnosed situation, in which case, you know the drill: Those who don’t conform must be punished. Socialization. That’s what school is for, right?)
Today, of course, Americans know better than that. We have Autism Awareness Month, and we don’t habitually institutionalize disabled children, and who ever saw a cattle car anyway, beef comes in trucks, don’t you know?
What we do instead has all the tidiness of the gas chamber, but with the moral certainty that comes from doctor-supervision. Unfortunate ultrasound? Clearly the baby needs to go. Just had a nasty, life-changing accident? Why give you counseling and treatment for depression — surely you’d be better off dead. Mind starting to wander? Perhaps you need a change of medications.
Trouble in Catholic Land
You would think that Catholics, being pro-life and anti-Nazi and all that stuff, wouldn’t have trouble with this. For sure we do our part to discourage people from offing their relatives, there is that to our credit.
Still, when I wrote my book, I put in a chapter called “Building a Class That Includes Every Student” that covers, among other topics, some basic pointers about working with students (and volunteers) who have disabilities. I did this not because the students themselves pose any particular classroom management challenge, but because I see the grown-ups goof it up often enough. And then class goes all stupid, and the kid just never comes back.
When Lisa Hendey recently posed the open question What do you want from your parish?, the number one response I received was, “More support for parents of special-needs children.”
In conversation yesterday on the topic of ASL Masses, it occurred to me that though my diocese might indeed have such a thing, or some suitable variation, I’d never heard of it. To which people respond, “Well, there aren’t any Deaf Catholics in my parish.” Um, no kidding.