Thursday, September 22, 2005

When Confidentiality Equals Divide and Conquer

The intent behind special education law is laudable: all children deserve an appropriate education in the least restrictive environment possible. I doubt you could find many people who would argue that automatic institutionalization or segregation of students with educational needs is a good thing. And I think over the past several decades we’ve learned a few things about education. Probably most notably that all students do not learn in the same way and that education is collaborative; i.e., students construct knowledge and learn from one another.

So diversity in the classroom is useful for all children. But the push to apply rigid standards to all children has created some unanticipated pressures for kids, like my son, who have ‘hidden’ challenges. In the effort to preserve confidentiality, and on the advice of our school, the children he interacts with on a daily basis do not know he has Asperger’s Syndrome. On the surface, this seems like a wise idea: why give children any reason or label to make fun of another student. In practice, it doesn’t work. So my son’s ‘disability’ is confidential.

Guess what? The kids know he is different. Non-disclosure does not change his wonderful quirkiness in any way. But it does cut us off from one another. Wouldn’t it be great of all the Aspie kids in middle school could form an advocacy group? Or have the parents create an email listserve to share gripes and successes? No can do. The school cannot disclose that information and we are all so wrapped up in helping our children ‘pass’ that we inadvertently give the message that being themselves is not OK.

And what about disclosing to the other children? If my son had CP, walked with crutches, or was blind, then maybe, just maybe the other kids would cut him some slack. Maybe the teachers wouldn’t forget that he has auditory processing delays and fine motor control issues that affect the legibility of his handwriting. But because he looks like any other kid and has academic strengths, there is an expectation that he *is* like any other kid.

Well, he isn’t and I should know. I was also not like any other kid. There was no language to explain AS in the 1960s and 1970s, but like my son, I’m an Aspie. I emerged from my childhood with some hidden scars, but also with many successes due to a loving family and meeting an amazing man in college who has been my husband for 17 years. I can ‘pass’ for normal, or neuro-typical as we say in the Aspie world, but I am most comfortable alone or with other slightly out of phase folks. I am through being afraid or ashamed of who I am. I am through with listening to the messages that isolate me from those who could be friends and allies. But mostly I am through believing in the wisdom of divide and conquer.

It is time for a change.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Diagnosis by Proxy and other Logical Fallacies

In the 9/16/05 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Mikita Brottman writes an opinion piece titled "Nutty Professors." In it she makes an argument about the essential inapropriateness of accommodating to potential behavioral issues that she identifies as accompanying Asperger's Syndrome (AS).

It would be one thing if Ms. Brottman were a neuropsychologist or psychiatrist in the autism field. Actually, according to her biography, she is "a professor of language, literature, and culture at the Maryland Institute College of Art." And the argument she makes is based on her reading of the APA diagnostic criteria for AS and on her experience with two faculty members who did not pass their year's probation.

"I can recall two instances where candidates were hired who, in retrospect, appear to have had many of the characteristic personality traits of Asperger's. Both had stellar résumés and impressive lists of publications; they were dedicated and professional teachers, with superlative references. . . .

Neither lasted more than a year in the job. In the first case -- and I'm disguising some details to protect their identities -- the new hire turned out to be dismissive of any student incapable of meeting her impossibly high standards, disturbingly fastidious, bad-tempered, and intractable in meetings. She was also arrogant, petty-minded, and obsessed with such matters as the relative size of her office and quality of its furniture. In the second case, the new star revealed himself to be an abstemious hermit and hypersensitive to imaginary slights; he was also a compulsive hoarder, and frugal to an unusual extreme. He was discovered to be actually living, Bartleby-like, in his office."

Ms. Brottman is making a host of assumptions that she is not qualified to make. First that these two individuals have Asperger's Syndrome, second that their performance difficulties were in fact related to any neurological difference at all, and third that this experience can be generalized to a population of individuals with Asperger's Syndrome.

I find it illuminating that Ms. Brottman considers AS as character disorder (that would be in the same family as Borderline Personality disorder). She states:

"Consequently, like most character disorders, Asperger's is a controversial diagnosis." (emphasis added)

Most researchers describe AS as a neurobiological issue. She goes on to say:
"If our hires had permitted themselves to accept a diagnosis of Asperger's syndrome (assuming that was, indeed, their condition), would we have been expected to adapt ourselves to the neurological differences that make them obsessive, miserly, rude, and truculent?"

This is an interesting statement on many levels. The language she chooses, eg, 'permitted themselves to accept a diagnosis' makes it seem as if for those individuals a diagnosis would give them an excuse for and permission to continue their inappropriate behavior. In fact, a proper understanding of one's neurology enables the individual to compensate for his or her difficulties and alleviates difficulties.

She also 'blames' their "obsessive, miserly, rude, and truculant" behavior on a diagnosis that she has made based on casual reading. For the sake of argument, I am willing to posit that these two individuals may have had Asperger's Syndrome. If that is the case, there are at least two possible viewpoints regarding their bahavior. First, that their behavior has as much or more to do with base personality than neurological hard-wiring. Second, that anxiety and a stressful work environment triggered stress related responses that were misinterpreted as obsessive, rude, etc. In neither case is it appropriate to assume that these negative behaviors are an inevitable result of Asperger's Syndrome

At the end of the day, Ms. Brottman is guilty of the worst kind of generalization--that made from a sense of academic superiority. I must disagree with her thesis and her conclusions and hope she does not speak for either this publication or academia at large.

ADDENDUM: After performing a websearch, I discovered that in addition to being a professor of language, literature, and culture, Brottman is also a psychotherapist. Mikita Brottman MA, Ph.D--her identifying information can be found here.
I was unable to find any publications by her that dealt with psychotherapy or autism. Her bibliography seems to be limited to books and articles about culture and language.