Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Michael Savage Blames Parents for Autism

I just watched a You Tube video of Michael Savage discussing autism and parenting, and felt I had to write something. Generally, I try to make this blog useful and practical, but not controversial or reactionary. Also, I like to give people the benefit of the doubt. After all, I didn’t listen to Michael Savage’s entire program, just a few out-of-context minutes. In any case, I don’t want to focus on negative energy from anyone, when so many people are working so hard to make the world a better place. Should I even comment about statements that seem so extreme, angry and unjustified?

But then I started thinking about the parents I’ve worked with, parents who read my blog or visit my web site, or parents who bring their children in to see me. Generally, whether the children have a diagnosis or not, the parents are doing the very best they can. When a child is struggling with some issue, I find that the parents are looking for answers, some way to make their child’s life better.

The autism community is filled with positive, educated, devoted parents. Of course, there are differences of opinion, sometimes extreme and even angry, on causes, treatments, even whether or not to attempt to “cure” autism. But behind it all is a general core idea that parents want their children to have happy and productive lives. Then someone like Michael Savage comes along and makes extreme and blaming comments. Should parents who are trying so hard to take care of their children have to deal with this sort of thing?

Psychology has a long and sad history of blaming parents, usually the mother, whenever a child is different. Just do some research on Freud’s theories of homosexuality, Bettelheim and Kanner on autism and Lidz on schizophrenia. These theories are discredited in professional circles, but they still jump up on occasion, like with Michael Savage’s statements.

I think this idea is most damaging to the parents of newly diagnosed children. These parents, usually struggling to determine the best treatment for their children, are often overwhelmed with the huge amount of information on autism, coupled with a very real lack of knowledge over what is the best treatment. The last thing they need is blame that they caused the issues or that they made the whole thing up.

One of my favorite psychological theorists is Donald Winnicott. He was a pediatrician in the middle of the 20th century, both well respected in the most elite psychoanalytic circles and, at the same time, able to  write in simple, accessible terms to actual parents. Winnicott wrote extensively about the idea of the “good enough mother”, which is the idea that children don’t need, in fact, don’t even do well, with a perfect parent who meets all their needs. Instead children need an attuned parent, one who is attempting to take care of them. I think this is an idea that is especially important to keep in mind when working with kids who are struggling, whether socially, academically, or emotionally. 

As difficult as this whole controversy can be, I think it can focus the entire autism community on Winnicott’s message. All children, autistic and neurotypical both, need caring, loving parents, not perfect parents.

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