One of the great sadnesses in our society is the stigma we give mental disabilities or mental differences. Whether it be a nervous tick, Dyslexia or ADHD the afflicted are shunned as if carrying a deadly communicable disease. Perhaps “shunned” isn’t the right word, maybe it’s more like “automatically dealt with.” It’s not the kind of treatment we give poison ivy, more like the way we deal with a cactus.
It’s an avoidance procedure that seems deeply rooted in our collective psyche. I have often thought that’s because it’s normally so complex it defies understanding without study. This lack of understanding is like entering a dark and strange room, it comes with a warning tingle and an unsettling feeling. Although, maybe it’s simply non-empathy, we are very empathic as a race, reading each other’s intentions with a glance at the face and a momentary view of body language. When this reading is obviously out of kilter and we can’t readily interpret someone’s mood or mission, our collective alarms start to sound.
That’s why it’s true that many types of mental differences and disabilities can be seen or even heard. A peculiar out of place expression or a unfamiliar tone or pacing of speech gives it away. Maybe it’s an unusual emotional reaction to something, or some instance otherwise unordinary. It’s not true for all types of mental differences, some are completely invisible to even the most empathic or analytical.
Still, debilitating conditions do stand out frequently and the shunning begins immediately.
“Warning, warning Will Robinson!”
The conditions that don’t stand out are still dangerous to the bearer of the blight. They take great care not to reveal that they are seeing a therapist, or worse a psychiatrist. They hide their difficulties with reading or interpretation carefully. They work hard to develop strategies to cover and keep their disability or difference to themselves. They are imprisoned by their own fears of rejection. They’re right to do that, because even if we don’t come right out and say things like “Hey, did you meet the retard yet?” for the majority of us that classification is indelibly marked on our collective consciousness. Different, wrong, unacceptable, just don’t touch me OK?
When those with mental disabilities and differences are children, in the US we call them “Special needs” kids or students. We often provide special transportation in the form of little yellow busses. These foreshortened school busses are advertisements for difference, as if to say “Beware: occupants are weird.” I once had a conversation with a “special” school administrator who was considering combining with a larger regular school. The access to a larger curriculum and greater variety of facilities was tempting, a chance to gently “mainstream” his charges and give them wider experiences. However, he was deeply cognizant of the social affect of his charges arriving and leaving each day on those busses. Not having his charges ride the regular busses was kind of like starting them off in a hole each day.
One of my son’s went to that school and spent his high school life blissfully in the company of others like himself. Like him not so much in difference or disability but in their danger of ostracization. That turned out very well for him, except he missed being part of a larger more varied school. The school was very basic having only the absolutely necessary courses and activities for passing state requirements. It did have an experienced staff however, one well used to his and many other kinds of disabilities. And it had one more crucially important benefit a feeling of unity and support that only comes from living and working in a fortress of protection, a safe home. Too bad that doesn’t last.
If we as adults react with distance to mental differences, imagine how most school age children react. In our schools even kids who have no appreciable mental differences from their classmates are often singled out for ostracization. The same kind of ostracization that brings depression, rebellion or suicide all too often. When the differences are mental, what happens then?
That’s something the Dyslectic or ADHD sufferer or anyone of thousands of students with “differences” are vitally concerned about. It hardens them and make them search out camouflage. They are constantly on the alert in avoidance of “being culled” from the happy heard. They often even avoid each other’s company for fear of exposure. That’s not the group you belong to if you want to fit in.
All the adult talk of a “celebration of differences” doesn’t matter a whit when you see the realization in your classmate’s eyes. Suddenly, these aren’t your people anymore, you’ve become strange, alien and possibly dangerous. You slowly try to adjust to the realization the rest of your life will be somewhere outside your own race.
It’s amazing that so many of these outsider kids pick themselves up off the “culling room” floor and go on with their lives, being reminded every day that they just won’t pass for regular, or plain old everyday normal. Not only will they have to work harder and longer than their peers, they may never fit in again. That’s because of the gulf of understanding that our society has yet to close. A gulf that exists on both sides of the difference. While it might be possible for someone to imagine what it’s like to have Aspergers syndrome, what does it feel like trying to understand what it is not to have it? How deep is the gulf between those with and those without when you can’t even perceive the other side?
The answer is it varies depending on the disability or condition. Aspergers is a good example because of it’s subtle complexity. Two common traits are an unusual focus or interest in a single pursuit, for example paleontology or aircraft identification, to the exclusion of almost everything else, and an inability to read the intents and emotions of others. That’s the killer symptom.
The first characteristic might pass as a simple excessive interest or life long passion, “All Bill ever talks about is baseball!” The second however, is a big broadcast to everyone that’s there is something wrong. What would you think when you’re congratulating someone on their efforts, and not being able to read your intent, they think you’re mad at them? When the well intended pat on the back is treated as an attack? What do any of us think of someone who comments on the movie at the top of their lungs in a hushed theater? Emotional expressions and other signals of feeling and behavior can be an inscrutable foreign language to someone with Aspergers. They often cannot tell a happy smile, from a vicious or cruel one, or a sad emotional state from a studious one. This means they have difficulty replying sympathetically to anyone’s emotional state because they can’t reliably tell how they should react.
See what I mean by complex? The dyslectic who has to work 3 times as hard to decipher a page of text, the brilliant student who cant interpret anything she reads but easily processes and photographically remembers anything she hears, or the young man who can do anything you show him with uncanny precision but can’t use a manual because pictures and words, while easily absorbed, just don’t connect to the real world. Which would you hire?
We put in sidewalk ramps for people in wheel chairs, have lifts on busses for those unable to walk or climb, what do we do for those among us who are simply wired differently? The ones who live in fear of discovery, or walk school hallways in shame or just exist as best they can as a kind of second or third class human, not right, therefore not acceptable.
That’s the key to the first step, acceptance. Realizing we wont “get any on us” and this is a situation we need to understand, adjust to and provide for. It’s a shame, a world wide shame, that these conditions and differences are not provided for competently on most health plans, only few school systems, and almost no employers. My family’s lucky, we live in a state and a country that recognizes some mental issues or differences and at least has some provisions. Even if some deny the existence, the need for care and adjustment to handle these kinds of issues, they will still exist. We gain nothing by ignoring them or relegating those in need to some sociological trash bin.
I believe that not only is it time, but that we have grown as a race enough to accept and examine the whole panoply of mental issues and differences. That starts with attacking our own stigmas and then taking hold with the cool hand of reason. We have at least started, the medieval loony bin is far behind us (in most places). We sometimes recognize the advanced intelligence of many of the “afflicted” and there are even a few paltry efforts to utilize this intelligence for everyone’s benefit. We are even perceiving that some criminality is an outgrowth of mental health and difference.
What will make the biggest impact in recovering these people and including them in useful society is early action. That isn’t done by holding them back a grade or putting them in the “slow” class. It’s done though canny diagnosis and early intervention. Schools and teachers are a natural choke point to discover these kids sooner than later. So many are missed currently, and I’m afraid most go though their lives not realizing what their real difference is.
A lot of parents miss the signs as well, I know I did. It took a total meltdown in 5th grade to get my attention. My son ended up dealing with his differences by hiding in school bathrooms and coat closets. He annoyed his teachers by never seeming to pay attention. Always busy doing something else, he was likely to get up from his chair and walk around the classroom during lessons. When called on he would have the answers, but it was distracting for both teacher and class. Kids never say “Gee, I’m really different somehow Dad, and not in a good way.”
It’s a tough nut to crack in overburdened schools, even tougher for most parents who have to do their learning and acclimatization on the fly, but not as tough as it is on the children and adults who deal with their differences on a daily basis. Especially when they exist separate and unsupported as so many do.
Copyright Prentiss Gray 2011