Having an autistic kid doesn't cause divorce

April 6, 2011 - 0:0

My son, who is now six, was diagnosed with Asperger's almost three years ago. By now I'm well-acquainted with the disorder's tell-tale behaviors: the obsessive interest in arcane topics (lighting catalogs and floor plans, in our case), the extensive vocabulary, the need for less sleep than neuro-typical children, and so forth.

What I didn't know about and never thought to look into is the history of autistic spectrum disorder. It was only recently — while writing my new novel, in which the protagonist's five-year-old son is an ""aspie"" — that I began to research the genesis of a syndrome that is, and will remain, such an important focus of my life.
And I found a few surprises:
1. Until recently, autistic was synonymous with schizophrenic.
A derivation of autos, the Greek word for self, the term was coined in 1910 by the Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler, who wrote that a certain number of his patients exhibited an ""autistic withdrawal of the patient to his fantasies, against which any influence from outside becomes an intolerable disturbance.""
2. In the late '60s and early '70s, scientists believed that autism was caused by a lack of maternal empathy.
In 1967, after conducting a study in which he found that that mothers of autistic children show higher instances of stress and depression than mothers of neuro-typicals (duh), Bruno Bettelheim of the University of Chicago advanced the ""refrigerator mother"" theory, concluding that the stressed-out moms — whom he compared to concentration camp guards — must be the cause of autism. The world's first and foremost child psychiatrist, Leo Kanner, agreed; autistic children, he remarked, are what happened when frigid mothers ""defrost enough to produce a child.""
3. Autistics cannot reliably count piles of toothpicks.
This misconception probably derives from a case study of one of Kanner's first autistic patients, Donald Triplett, a mathematical wiz-kid from Mississippi who, when pressured by his fellow teenagers to count the bricks of a nearby building, supplied an answer immediately. Half a century later, two reporters at The Atlantic discovered that Triplett hadn't really counted the bricks, but merely spat out a large number at random. Why did he lie? ""I just wanted for those boys to think well of me,"" he told the reporters.
4. The real-life basis for Dustin Hoffman's character in Rain Man was not autistic.
Kim Peek, a Utah-born ""megasavant,"" had no corpus callosum connecting the two halves of his brain. Posthumously diagnosed with Opitz-Kaveggia syndrome, he was not an ""autistic savant"" as the film disingenuously claims.
5. Parents of autistic children are not more likely to split up.
Rest easy, moms and dads. That pesky statistic about the divorce rate being as high as 80 percent when a couple has an autistic child? It's an urban — well, a suburban — myth.
(Source: Babble.com)