Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Munchausen by Society

The term Munchausen by Proxy, which was named for the wildly imaginative 18th century storyteller Baron Munchausen, refers to the behavior of a parent who seeks attention by falsely claiming that his or her child is seriously ill. I read about a case like that in my local newspaper. A mother claimed that her young daughter was dying of brain cancer; in fact, the child was completely healthy. To carry off this deception, the mother shaved her daughter's head and gave the child sleeping pills to create a drowsy and sick appearance, telling her that it was medicine for her disease. She even took the child for counseling about her impending death. Neighbors took up a collection to help pay the little girl's medical expenses, and the mother spent the money on clothes and lottery tickets. Fortunately this woman was caught and sent to prison before any permanent physical harm was done to her daughter, but I shudder to think of the extent of the emotional damage. That poor little girl had her childhood stolen from her in the cruelest of ways.

Back when Asperger's Syndrome (which was added to the DSM-IV in 1994) was a relatively new and little-known diagnosis, several parents in the UK were wrongly accused of Munchausen by Proxy when they asked for school accommodations for their Aspie kids. Distraught after receiving the diagnosis, these parents talked about their children in the alarmist terms commonly found in today's accounts of autism, calling them tragic sufferers with a severe mental disorder who probably would never be able to marry, hold a job, or live independently. Local educators looked at the children and saw healthy, intelligent kids with a few nervous habits and quirky behaviors. They reported the parents to social services investigators as suspected Munchausen cases, concluding that there could be no other reason to use such exaggerated negative language.

The parents got help from autism experts, including Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge University, who spoke in their defense. The accusations were dropped, and rightly so, as the parents were only repeating the dire predictions that they had heard from psychologists or read on the Internet. The parents were not seeking attention and were not intentionally misrepresenting their kids' condition.

Those educators had a point, though. The apocalyptic language that is often used to describe autistic children reeks to high heaven of Munchausen. The only difference is that the parents, for the most part, are not to blame. Rather, the perpetrators of this colossal fraud are self-aggrandizing psychologists, charitable fundraising campaigns, medical researchers looking for grants, politicians scheming to get votes, and lying hucksters peddling bogus cures.

And just like the girl who was falsely told she was dying of brain cancer, our kids are going to have to deal with the emotional consequences for the rest of their lives.



  • I wouldn't send parents who really do have Munchausen by Proxy to jail - they really need some form of psychiatric help I would have thought. Of course in just saying that I'm no doubt opening a whole debate about the nature of psychiatry etc. None the less parents like that should recieve some form of treatment, rather than just a prison term.

    By Blogger Redaspie, at 7:43 AM  

  • Good call.

    I really wonder what we are doing to our kids by refering to them as disabled at a young age. On the other hand, you have people who have a tough time who never know it is a neurological difference from birth.

    But there really is an "out damn spot" mentality to autism these days...an anxious "get 'em while they're young" imperative.

    I have a brilliant Aspie nephew whose mother only loved him...no therapy at all.

    Are we asking too much of the most sensitive among us, so others can feel like heroes?

    By Blogger r.b., at 8:00 AM  

  • Munchausen by Proxy is not a disease, redaspie. It's a pattern of abuse. If you think all child abuse should be "treated" rather than sent to jail for, then fine, but I hope you're not singling that one out. Just because it's got a pathological label doesn't mean it's a disease. It's not a thing someone has, it's a thing someone does.

    By Blogger ballastexistenz, at 8:41 AM  

  • True, Amanda, but parents who abuse their own children in order to get attention has to have something going wrong with their heads! Many child abusers were themselves abused as children, thus leading to a cycle of abuse, a fact that should be noted by anyone tempted to engage in demonisation (something the popular press in my country do very frequently, of course, in order to raise money).

    By Blogger Redaspie, at 9:35 AM  

  • Increasing recognition of neurological difference has its advantages. But then there's the big problem of self-fulfilling prophecy, combined with all the medicalized negative language and dire prognoses. It's unclear how things will turn out a generation from now.

    By Blogger Joseph, at 9:37 AM  

  • Great post ABFH. David Andrews and I talked about this a little bit. In many ways, the current societal diagnosis might be more accurate as hypochondriasis by proxy.

    By Blogger Do'C, at 1:31 PM  

  • Re supposed increase in Autism/Aspergers in recent years,I don't think there are more Autistic people than say the 1950's its just that the criteria has been expanded. For example in 1955 a nonspeaking, never looks at anyone including his/her parents, spins all the time child would be obviously autistic to a pediatrician where as a verbal, affectionate to his/her parents, but prefers his/her own company and is very interested in certain subjects (thinks about them a lot) child would be maybe considered not to be trying hard enough to be more social and less obsessive.

    By Blogger Janice, at 7:07 PM  

  • For example in 1955 a nonspeaking, never looks at anyone including his/her parents, spins all the time child would be obviously autistic to a pediatrician

    Highly unlikely that a pediatrician would've known what autistic was in 1955. Even today I bet you many pediatricians are very unaware of autism.

    By Blogger Joseph, at 4:12 PM  

  • hi. I just created an account on blogger today....inspired by what I've been reading lately. Curebies are making MORE "spots" (reference to r.b's out damn spot quote) by trying to impose norms on minds that are just not wired for that. I stopped by this blog to say hi and introduce myself as a new member of blogger, and express an interest in getting to know others with autism online through blogging.
    my blog is called Letters from the Fortress.

    By Blogger Athena Ivan, at 5:51 PM  

  • Hi Athena, I followed the link to your profile, but it doesn't show your blog yet.

    I'm looking forward to reading it when you have it all set up.


    By Blogger abfh, at 6:39 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home