Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Friday, August 24, 2007

The Essential Features

A recent post by Kristina Chew discusses the Rain Man stereotype that "autistic people frequently fail to see... the essential features of what is required."

There's a page on the Autism Speaks website that purports to illustrate this alleged lack of intellectual capacity with a photograph of a 4-year-old boy at the Lincoln Memorial, standing underneath the engraved words of the Gettysburg Address and looking at cracks in the wall. The boy's father writes that he "has already taught himself to read and to write and is more than capable of reading the speech" but instead finds the cracks in the wall more interesting. Supposedly, this little boy's lack of interest in the words of the speech shows the mental challenges that autistic children face.


This left me pondering the question: What sort of expectations would a parent ordinarily have for a non-autistic preschooler on a visit to the Lincoln Memorial? Even if a young novice reader, of any neurology, could identify the words in the Gettysburg Address, he wouldn't have nearly enough life experience to grasp their historical context or their political significance. Is it any wonder that he might prefer to look at a crack in the wall, or a bug crawling across the crack, or other such objects of interest to small boys?

If Autism Speaks can show me a 4-year-old boy—anywhere—who has a deep and abiding appreciation for the profound wisdom of the Gettysburg Address, I'll eat Bob Wright's hat with whipped cream and a maraschino cherry on top.

And what's more, any 4-year-old who is capable of teaching himself to read has a pretty doggone good ability, compared to other children of his age, to identify the essential features of all those little squiggly marks on the paper.

If that young boy had been born in another generation, free of today's "autism awareness" hysteria, his father would no doubt be bragging about his son's intellectual gifts, rather than bemoaning his lack of interest in the Gettysburg Address as proof of a devastating mental impairment.

I really have to wonder what Autism Speaks and its supporters are thinking. To me, it looks like they're frequently failing to see the essential features of what is required.

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  • The kid might have his priorities in better order than some other people.
    A record of history doesn't need to be fixed....it just is what it is.

    If the wall isn't properly maintained there wont be anything there to support those engraved words.... Then no one will be able to veiw it.

    Maybe the question shouldn't be why is he paying attention to the crack but why isn't someone else.

    By Blogger Ed, at 3:35 PM  

  • Maybe he read the words while approaching and moved on to something more interesting?

    When I was at the lincoln memorial at about age 8 I was more interested in seeing the amount of damage that had been caused to the stone of Abe's boot by people kissing his toe.

    Just an Asperger thought from me.

    By Blogger Patrick, at 4:01 PM  

  • Good catch. The Autism Speaks leadership should be embarrased (by this an a whole bunch of other stuff).

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:05 PM  

  • I'll join you in that hat sundae if somebody can locate the 4 year-old who understands Lincoln's speech. I teach 8th grade American History and most of my students need instruction to understand it.


    karen in ca

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:17 PM  

  • Oh my god, what a cute little boy! I wish I could send him some of my photos of cracks in walls and sidewalks. Not everyone has the capacity to see the wonder and beauty in these odd places.

    Thanks for finding this. It's amazing the things some people can think of!

    By Blogger Bev, at 5:05 PM  

  • The flipping speech is miles above the lad's head! How on earth is he meant to read it without getting a crick in his neck?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:13 PM  

  • That is so profoundly silly. Your observation to the effect that the father failed to grasp the essential features of what is required made me laugh, but it's also very true. Of course, what is required depends on who is doing the requiring. And the fact that we all see different features as essential is how we get things like variation, innovation and progress.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:17 PM  

  • Good grief, what a stupid observation. How long would it take to stand there reading that thing? My ASD (now adult) child couldn't read those words now even though xe could read some at age3 because looking up at anything like that is scary. I have never been able to get an explanation of what my kid sees, but looking up to a wall like that or even up at tall trees gives my kid some kind of terrible sensation and the kid, for that reason, avoids spaces like that one at the Lincoln monument.

    So a 4 year old is supposed to stand back and focus on all those words written in all caps????

    Totally ridiculous.

    By Blogger Jenny, at 7:50 PM  

  • I'm sure AS wants us to think, "Poor man. It must be so difficult." But all I can think of is, "What a galloping jackass."

    By Blogger bigwhitehat, at 10:03 PM  

  • I think BWH pinned the tail right on the donkey there. I was going to comment, but I have to finish laughing first. ;)

    By Blogger Joeymom, at 1:23 AM  

  • Who knows but that crack may still be there when the words are worn away and gone----and it has a history of its own...... Charlie has his own fascination in the cracks on the sidewalk (interesting ones here at the beach, due to all the water in the ground).

    An archaeologist knows that the cracks tell a lot: About the sorts of materials a structure was made of, how the were put together, weather patterns....

    By Blogger kristina, at 2:09 AM  

  • I really love the caption on the top of the Autism Speaks webpage you supplied.

    "Editor's note: The opinions expressed herein are those of the author exclusively."

    Sure. Autism Speaks always promotes a wide range of viewpoints and opinions, even those different from its own. Gag.

    I don't have the stomach for much of this stuff. Regrettably, I'll never be as good an Autism Speaks watchdog as you, ABFH. I applaud all the work you're doing. Yours is one of the first websites I'll direct people to when they need an education on autism politics. And it's one of my primary sources for information such as this.

    Thank you.

    By Blogger Chasmatazz, at 11:51 AM  

  • A blogging pal pointed that piece out to me a little while ago, but history isn't my strong suit.

    By Blogger Maddy, at 5:39 PM  

  • So WTF

    There are many engineers that would find the same, and I'll you what, them that envisaged the wall had better listen to the engineers when they see the cracks, cos without them the whole edifice might fall down

    By Blogger Larry Arnold PhD FRSA, at 3:04 PM  

  • Well, BWH just made me spit water out my nose all over my desk!

    Thanks for this. A 4 yr old who can read and write is certainly a gifted child. His father is definately missing something.

    By Blogger mumkeepingsane, at 12:06 PM  

  • I've been thinking lately that the concept of the autism spectrum may need to be deconstructed.

    Once a concept is in place, people will often not be able to, or perhaps not want to, think outside the confines of that concept. A child who develops new skills after years of quack treatments was cured by quackery, regardless of the evidence otherwise. Historically, poor street people involved in illegal ways of making a living were still classified as "morons" regardless of IQ test scores, with some kind of ridiculous excuse made up to "explain" how people could still be mentally defective without solid evidence of developmental disabilities.

    By Blogger reform_normal, at 12:37 PM  

  • My son also taught himself to "read" (spell) and write (down to the perfection of using serifs!). I know how hyperlexic kids are fascinated by letters. The reason why the boy in the picture didn't care is so obvious - the text was way high, not on his eye level. Normal kids would be bored to death visiting that monument anyway, and would rather run around or look at the marble patterns for lack of anything else to do.

    I think the problem that parents like Paul face with a child that has been recently diagnosed, is that they keep hearing from specialists about all the things that your child can't or "won't" do. They lose sight of all the wonderful things that child is able to do, or will.

    I understand that clinicians and therapists want to point to deficits so parents and other professionals will work to help on the child's development. But many times I think those specialists go overboard, and what looks to me as a normal behavior or motor response is seen in their eyes as a serious flaw. When my son got diagnosed at 2 1/2, he loved to imitate Cookie Monster eating cookies, and when he did that in the doctor's office, she interpreted his act as some type of tic or weird stim. I told her, he's just having fun, being a clown, why is that wrong?

    By Blogger Another Autism Mom, at 3:47 PM  

  • I do not get to read blogs as much as I did before I started school. I am just reading this. So funny!

    I do not know of one kids who could give a hoot at 4. I personnaly like what "ed" said.

    "BWH" hit the nail on the head too. We are all suppose to get tears in our eyes and feel sorry for this poor father who must endure such trauma. Who cares that he can read! What about the meaning of life, does he know that yet?

    Well sorry. Mine is six and I would love to see him read a book, but the "Gettysbuerg Address"...heck I can't even spell it!

    By Blogger A Bishops Wife, at 4:08 AM  

  • I was reading really young, and read everything in sight. However, reading the writing on a monument wouldn't have interested me (and still doesn't, as an adult). I think the boy is right -focus on what is interesting to HIM.
    Personally, I'd rather look at monuments from a distance, admiring the entire scenery, then up close. Most of the monuments are just cold and creepy.

    By Blogger Maggie Rosethorn, at 7:39 AM  

  • It's bullshit to think that a four-year-old, autistic or NT, would care any more about the Gettysburg Address than be fascinated by a crack in the wall. Four-year-olds are four-year-olds, and four-year-olds, no matter what their level of intelligence and understanding, generally are fascinated by things adults no longer are. It's just a sign of being a little kid.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:46 AM  

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