Friday, January 18, 2008

Strength in Abnormality = Deficit is Nothing New

One phenomenon I've noted is the tendency to try to interpret every way a disabled person differs from the norm as a deficit, even our strengths. The most well-known example of this is probably the Block Design peak in autism.
A number of studies found that autistics tend to have noticeable strength in Block Design, in some kids significantly better than normal (I once saw the IQ test scores for an autistic boy who had gotten the lowest possible score on Comprehension and Vocabulary and the highest possible score on Block Design). Not all autistics have Block Design peak, but it's extremely rare for a non-autistic to have significant Block Design peak.
The interpretation given to that was 'weak central coherence' - a deficit in perceiving the big picture, 'can't see the forest for the trees' cognitive style. In reality, most people, including autistics, do not naturally segment images into equally sized blocks but rather along color borders and using a bunch of extrapolation to estimate what the thing looks like in 3 dimensions. There have been a number of studies showing this, and no evidence has been presented to suggest this is vastly different in autism. So in order for anyone to do well on Block Design, they must force a different segmentation than is natural, something which someone with weak central coherence would have difficulty doing.
But the tendency to interpret a strength in a disabled person as a deficit is very pervasive. And just now I discovered it dates back at least to 1953, most likely earlier. In 1953, Margaret S Mahler and Paula Elkisch described a child, Stanley, considered 'psychotic', in the journal The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, volume 8, pages 252-261.
Stanley was a strange boy. He cried whenever he heard a story 'When You Were A Baby' which he insisted on hearing, and reacted similarly to a number of other stories about babies. He would try to feed pictures of crying babies and played with a book called Fun With Faces, in which you could switch a baby's face from crying to not crying. While playing with that face he "threw up his stiffened and flexed arms, strained and tightened his arm muscles rhythmically in this position for some time, while twisting his head downward and to the left side. His face was bizarrely distorted with widely open mouth and protruding tongue."
Relevant to this post, he showed a remarkable memory. This was not interpreted in a positive manner. Rather, this is how they introduced their article:

"Parents of psychotic children frequently stress the fabulous memory these youngsters have. Closer examination of this phenomenon in severely disturbed children reveals that this seemingly positive ability actually expresses grave pathology of the ego in the most crucial and important mechanism of defense: repression."

In other words, Stanley had a deficit in forgetting!

Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home