Saturday, May 26, 2012

Sins of Our Fathers' DNA

In the Old Testament, God said to Adam, “Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you that you should not eat?'” (Genesis 3:8-11).” Because of his original sin, Adam (and Eve) were cast from the Garden of Eden. They were held responsible for Adam’s misdeed.

During and after the World War II era, many social psychologists attempted to understand the massive religious and ethnic scapegoating of Jews for the economic plight of Germany following the Treaty of Versailles, resulting in the torture and murder of millions of innocent people throughout Europe. In 1941 psychologist Neal Miller and his colleagues at Yale University published an article “The Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis” proposing that human aggression is the product of a natural process emanating from thwarting the individual or group from achieving highly desired goals. People who are frustrated look for someone or something to blame, whether it has anything to do with their affliction or not.  In the 1960s other psychologists conducted a series of studies demonstrating that exposing animals, from snakes to monkeys (and even people), to painful stimulation almost invariably elicits aggression directed at nearly any nearby target, whether that object had anything to do with their pain, or not. Someone or something must be held responsible and pay for their suffering.

It should come as no surprise, parents who are experiencing anger and suffering grief because of their child’s disability, such as autism, look for someone or something to blame.  In the distant past, birth of a child with a disability was considered God’s punishment for some presumed sin based on numerous biblical references to visiting punishment upon the sons for sins of the father.  During the 18th century in England and in the New World, punishment was directed at mothers rather than fathers, who were typically held culpable for their child’s disability.  Religious authorities and parents often believed the devil had inhabited their unborn child resulting in a physical or psychological disability, often from some presumed maternal sexual transgression.  No bleeding heart, Martin Luther recommended drowning children with disabilities to rid the devil from their midst.  Bruno Bettleheim’s attempt to censure the mothers of children with autism for their child’s condition, maintaining the destructive tradition of misdirected maternal blame.

Many of today’s parents of children with autism are not so different in that respect from those entirely innocent and blameless animals, upon whom the experimenter inflicted pain.  They lash out at someone, something, actually nearly anything, to blame for their child’s condition.  Any professional who joins them in identifying any remotely plausible source of their suffering is viewed with great favor by grieving parents who see them as legitimate targets, much like the Inquisitors in England and throughout Europe who identified witches among their midst to be imprisoned, tortured or killed. There will always be some professionals who will capitalize on parents’ suffering, offering them false targets for their anger and fabricated panaceas for their child’s condition. Those of us who point out there is no connection between the concocted "cause" and their child's autism are considered traitors or worse, for stripping away parents' guilt-expunging fantasy.   

Parents are for the moment able to believe, that at least it was not they, who were to blame.  If parents are able to believe there is an external cause for their child’s autism, they are greatly relieved they are absolved of responsibility for their child’s disability; it is comforting that they had not in some unknown way sinned.  Who among us cannot think of something, one thing, one small thing we may have done during our child’s prenatal or early perinatal period that we can imagine might have caused their condition?  There is that medicine we consumed or that extra drink at the party or working in the garden spreading pesticide, that used questionable chemicals.  Each and every one of us conjure up some small potential transgression we think we may have committed, in our deepest moments of guilt, and flagellate ourselves with psychological thorns of blame from our child’s disability.

While autism may have multiple causes and subtypes, most evidence points to genetic errors as the basis for most forms of autism. That is why, though there have been remarkable advances in genetics research on autism, such findings seem to offer limited comfort to parents, because in a convoluted way, some parents still feel responsible for the chemical DNA sequences in their eggs and spermatozoa and are not able to feel entirely blameless for their child’s autism.  We cling to sins of our father's DNA. 

That is also why, despite the fact that at least half of children with autism can now successfully achieve integration into regular education by first or second grade after intensive early behavioral intervention, many parents remain deeply distraught.  Despite their child’s enormous gains and their quality of life vastly improved, their daughter is not likely to become a successful lawyer or it is improbable their son will become a architect or doctor.  Parents, and even worse, their child, have still been cast from the Garden of Eden, so there must be some external cause to blame for that profound loss. 

So we perpetuate the errors of the Inquisitors and our ancestors’ witchcraft trials in the American colonies four centuries ago. When will parents be able to forgive themselves and stop blaming others for something neither they nor others have done?  

1 comment:

  1. With all due respect the prevalent view about autism causation as expressed by many public authorities is that autism disorders probably result from gene environment interaction.

    Most autism research has been directed overwhelmingly towards genetic based autism research. Yet the best that research has produced is the tentative conclusion that there are different genes or clusters "associated with" "some" variants of autism. I just attended IMFAR where one of the featured speakers Bernie Devlin speculated that the search for autism related genes would continue for approximately 5 years.

    There is no need to assume that all parents are wrestling with demons simply because we believe that all causes - both genetic and environmental - should be researched and explored.