Does anyone else think this kind of thing is a tragedy? These kind of clips embody what’s wrong in the world about autism right now. Now just FYI, my children and I actually took part in this exact study mentioned here in the videos (i.e. the Infant Sibling Project in Boston.) So I am not speaking flippantly. I have experience with this field, with the kinds of experiments done, and even some of these researchers now. I also have a child with whom I was sucked into this autism scare tactic before I knew better.
I have written a lot of posts which touch on this subject so I’m not going to repeat myself much here. But I am just fuming these days over the mothers in these clips who feel better now that their oldest boys have a diagnosis. There is a reason why those maxims that “he’s just a boy” or “he’ll outgrow it” are true. Because it’ true. There’s a whole crop of children out there (many of whom are eldest boys) who grow up with these delays and social awkwardness. The symptoms are real. The delays are real. But labeling them all autistic is inaccurate. Mothers are now being torn apart by, yet strangely taking comfort in, this diagnosis. Maybe because now the confusion is gone, the fears are validated, and there is an action plan? But the stigma is now on the child and it will take about six years of weirdness to outgrow. That is, IF all the years of therapy, IEPs, and parental weirdness doesn’t fulfill the prophecy.
After going through this myself with my oldest, I still get upset when mother after mother who tells me the story of their preschool pathologizing their little boys. “He’s developmentally delayed,” “He’s socially awkward,” “He’s not communicating,” “He’s not following directions.” “Maybe he’s PDD-NOS.” Except for the diagnosis of Oppositionally Defiant Disorder, there is probably nothing which irritates me more than all these little boys being put on THE SPECTRUM (the autism spectrum that is).
Now don’t get me wrong. I am not against preschools, I am not against early intervention, I am not against special ed, and I am not against autism research. I have a classically autistic cousin. I’ve seen it, and I’ve seen how much the special education sector has helped her. They’ve given her a quality of life she probably wouldn’t have had otherwise. So I am not against more attention being given to autism and autism-like disorders. I think this is awesome.
What I AM against is the constant confusion of gender with autism. And I bet if I knew more girls having the problem, I would broaden my position (I just don’t know of many yet). It is simply the case that many boys have the tendency to develop later, more awkwardly, less socially, less verbally, less imaginatively. This does not put them on THE SPECTRUM. It makes it important to teach boys these things. It makes gender and birth order more important than the personality icons they currently are.
First of all, there is a cultural schizophrenia going on in our culture about boys. On one hand, gender doesn’t matter and girls and boys are put together in the same daycare, preschool, and kindergarten classrooms like they’re all the same. But on the other hand, boys will be boys and people treat girls and boys accordingly. Expecting a little girl to fold her hands and sit quietly, for example (many don’t). Or expecting boys to be wild and ill-mannered (many are not). It isn’t just the difference between professionals and playground moms… both attitudes often come from the same people. Boys make moms throw up their hands in irritation as they make silly faces, get into things, and generally act as though they’re in their own social universe. So we reinforce boyhood stereotypes sometimes… but we don’t usually TREAT boys differently than girls. In our egalitarian society, that’s not kosher. (The same kind of argument can be made for girls, for that matter). We may harbor more resentment toward boys—studies have shown that teachers and strangers tend to elicit more positive responses from girls—which is totally unhealthy of course. But we still throw them in the same classrooms and have the same developmental timelines.
I think this is ridiculous. First of all, boys and girls seem to have very different experiences of life, even as children. Some of the stereotypes exist for a reason. In my house, the boys generally respond to action and consequences–my daughter responds to words. The boys are motivated by something to do, the girl is motivated by someone to be with. The boys like things that do something cool, my girl likes things that are cute or pretty, or fit a certain function. The boys always want to know why, or do things better if they understand why; my girl could care less. My boys are more innocent–charming, sweet, inclusive. My girl is pickier, shyer of strangers and men, and more skeptical of what you want her to do. My boys don’t tend to deduce things very well—they need things explained logically, step by step, and they won’t fill in blanks if they don’t know the answer (i.e. if I say a word they don’t know, they have no idea what I’m talking about; if I tell them something is in the dresser but it’s actually under it, they won’t look or notice). My girl takes more time, liberty, and pretty much deduces exactly what I’m talking about, even if I’m using new vocabulary. She hardly ever asks what something means. My boys process one thing at a time, individualistically, and very much in context. My girl processes multiple things, in relationship, through words and can generalize to different contexts naturally. She is the only one of the four (she is 2.5 yrs old, and my oldest son is almost 7 now) who will correct what I’m saying if I don’t guess right the first time (i.e. “not squish, Mom… smush“). The distinctions come earlier.
So boys definitely process things differently than girls. It is partly a matter of brain activity, which shows that boys use the non-verbal side of their brains more than girls (who use the verbal). And that boys develop prefrontal cortex activity later than girls, who use more of their brains earlier. Some differences are hormonal too, although not much is usually said about pre-pubescent hormones to state definitively. But in my opinion, from comparing my three boys to my one girl, the main thing I see is that my girl demands attention. There is no way of getting around her because she’s in my face all the time, talking, bouncing, sharing. My boys have the tendency to be underfoot, for sure, but they tend to be less sure or confrontational about what they need… I have to notice myself and initiate. (i.e. sometimes my oldest needs more hugs but he’d never realize that himself or solicit it).
Actually this last example is interesting because I have noticed that my little girl has had more talking and touching in her first two years than my boys probably had in theirs. Not because I favored her but because she’s always here talking to me, trying to talk to me, trying to look in my eyes and get her to notice her, move her, get her something, etc. My boys had the normal amount of touching when they were babies of course, but did not elicit the same talking and touching needs as my girl… so I probably did not give it to them. I am speaking in generalities of course, but to this day I wonder what would have happened if I gave my boys the same talking and touching that my daughter has received (because she demands it). My oldest might still have had language trouble, and my second might have had sensory problems, but I bet they would have been less severe. I bet I would have overrun their personal boundaries to fix it—in comparison to the kind of uncertain, reticent posture I had when I was first figuring out how to discern and confront my little boys’ weaknesses. My daughter has taught me that her overrunning my personal boundaries makes sure she got the stimulation she needed. Because my boys didn’t approach me in that way, and I did not approach them that way, they may have suffered… at least a little.
I think it continues past the age of three too, since girls tend to be more relational, social, verbal. This ensures they continue to get the attention and practice they need to engender more skills in these areas. Boys are often off and away from people at 4, 5, 6… they’re careening around the playground and playing swordsmen, etc. They aren’t usually interacting with mom about what kind of pretty butterfly they saw and how they need some lemonade. And do we think they should? Do we counteract that? Of course not… we usually reinforce what is natural to them. But then should we be surprised at the different results? I am speaking again in generalities of course, but just to make the point: nature plays a role, and then nurture nurtures the nature =)
So I think more research on gender needs to make its way into the mainstream. I am sure there are all kinds of gender-based studies which have been done that do NOT point to androgynous developmental charts. But because we can’t segregate our classrooms or playgrounds (nor I am advocating that), there is little point in popularizing this line of thought. But in the meantime, when experts tell you that your preschool boy is language delayed, socially awkward, or possible on THE SPECTRUM, remind yourself that he could be autistic… or he could just be a boy.