Role Reversals (#205)
Peace Is the Goal (#207)

Tabula Non Rasa (#206)

"Bee-oo-ti-fool!" Charlie called out as he ran from the dinner table and then back to put his dishes in the sink. He was very groggy this morning and I had to unwrap him from his blanket and coax him onto the red bus. After a great morning working on his programs, his concentration must have ebbed and his head sagged. It has been a week of change--Jim and I back to teaching, a kindly but new babysitter meeting him at the bus--and Charlie, a boy full of emotions, must register his feelings.
"Peaceful, relaxed, happy" was how the verbal behavior consultant described Charlie's face after his late-afternoon session with Miss Cindy. "Turn on" Charlie insisted when I was about to take out the Old 97s CD; after a Mom Hot Showah, he asked to hear his latest favorite songs with a delighted grin: "I want In Dee Ee-eh-ning. Mommy! Hello ee-yess, Gwand Oll Dukeov York! Mahm-mee. Krissmass two fuhnt teeth!"

After a Wednesday of change, Charlie was glad to do the same old Thursday things with me and "Daddy office. Inna Bwonx! Daddy home, 'strain."

Tabula Rasa--Latin for a "blank slate"--was the title of the "opera/theater work" performed after the autism seminar I spoke at last night as part of NEUROfest. I wanted very much to see Tabula Rasa, which, like "The Boy Who Wanted To Be a Robot," was about autism.

As the composer, Henry Akona, mentioned during the autism seminar, Tabula Rasa draws on discussions with an autism mother about her daughter and is made up of

three interlocking stories about children lost in the woods: Victor, a.k.a., The Wild Boy of Aveyron, a feral child found in France in 1800 after having spent his formative years in the wild and now lost in a forest of 'civilization'; Emily, a contemporary girl with Autism lost in a forest of antidepressants; and Hansel and Gretel of storybook fame, literally abandoned in the forest. Tabula Rasa examines the effects of nature and nurture, and the fundamental meaning of language and human relationships.

As I noted last night, Charlie takes Zoloft and Risperdal. Bruno Bettelheim is known for his work on the meaning of fairy tales in The Uses of Enchantment (1975), in addition to his promoting of the refrigerator mother theory of autism--that autism is caused by cold mothers; that autism is a sort of attachment disorder--in The Empty Fortress: Infantile Autism and the Birth of the Self (1967). In one chapter, "Persistence of a Myth," he also suggests that so-called wild or feral children--including Victor," the "wild boy of Aveyron"--had infantile autism.

Talk about an autism myth that needs immediate demystification right now, right here. This terrible mistake of a theory has most unjustly devastated the lives of untold autism families in the 1960s and still today.

To suggest that an autistic child is like a " feral child "--a child abandoned and found in the wilderness and raised by animals--is tantamount to saying that autistic children are autistic because they have been abandoned, figuratively as well as literally. Abandoned, that is, by their parents--those cold-hearted Frigidaire Moms and Dads--and left, like Hansel and Gretel, to wander in a dark forest.

The historical "wild boy of Aveyron" was found in southern France in the late 18th century. This was the age of the Enlightenment, an intellectual movement whose followers (such as the French writers Voltaire and Didérot) believed that a better world could be created through reason alone; that humankind could be perfected through the rationality of science. The English philosopher John Locke refers to a child's mind as a tabula rasa--a blank slate to be written on by experience. The French scientists who took care of and studied Victor indeed saw this "wild child" as a tabula rasa on whom to try out their educational theories.

But the analogy that autistic children are such tabulae rasae falls flat and false in the face of Charlie's experience, and of Jim's and mine with him. Charlie's mind is most unblank, a tabula plane inscripta, a "slate thoroughly written upon," full of all the memories that Charlie cannot forget. His mind is stuffed plumper than a Thanksgiving cornucopia with images of tweed skirts and Jim in a blue shirt, of the sound of his first lead therapist saying "Match" in her Midwestern accent (which he echoes whenever he says "Match!"), of the happy times doing ABA with Stella, Tara, Arielah . Indeed, Charlie has been known to re-enact the seqence of being called to "come here" to the table and "do this" (drop a block in the bucket); to be told "great job" and "go play."

That was Charlie's first educational experience and that kind of high-quality, intense, Lovaas ABA education is what Charlie expects when he is being taught. Anything less--lower standards, lukewarm motivation--and Charlie falters, falls into stims, or worse. More than teaching him skills like sitting at the table, listening, and building block structures, Charlie developed real relationships with his therapists, learned to think flexibly, to learn from past mistakes, to read their emotions and his own and to share their joy when he said "Barney" perfectly when he was five years old.

We used to take Polaroids of our therapists so Charlie would not forget the faces and names of those who made the difference in his young life. Charlie used to insist on spreading these photographs and others all over the floor not so much to look at them, but just to have them around. But accidentally nudging one photo meant a scream and more and we told Charlie, got to clean up and put the photos away. Charlie takes them out every long once and awhile but has learned, he really does not need to see them, so thoroughly are the memories of those nurturing individuals and his fundamental relationships with them etched into his ever-growing mind.



so ridiculous to say these kids are tabula rasa!! fluffy is anything but a blank slate. these kids are not a new species, they are human beings, shaped by their experience, environment, and their biology. ugh! they are not wild or abandoned or the product of a refrigerator mother. that is infuriating and so damaging. glad you speak so clearly on this, kristina!


The feral child was influenced by his surroundings (The Wild Boy), living like an animal and adapting to his environment (Paul Collins did a study on him).

Is not the environment as well as how we teach and how we nuture, as much an influence on our children labled autistic as any other child? Are we all not products of what we learn, where we live and what we know?

Interesting post. Many thanks!!


Thanks for all of the interesting insight in this post. Ah yes, "Refridgerator Mother"...this is what a doctor once "diagnosed" my mother as and she is one of the most loving, kind, nonjudgemental, cheerful,attentive people I have ever known...but I know this label still haunts her as 29 years later she still apologizines to her children for things she thinks she did wrong...and in my opinion she did everything right.


Yes, thank God we live in the times we do today where we are not so isolated or left to feel that what we were being told was true...that maybe we caused our child's autism in some way. I feel for the mom's of the past for having to live with their children in a time that they did not have the information that we have today or the tremendous support system that we have. We all know that our children's minds are full of so much and ready to learn so much more.

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