Thursday, July 24, 2008

Michael Savage and the Bob Newhart School of Psychology

I've been meaning for days now to get to the Michael Savage/autism story; I tend to agree with Rod Dreher about the matter, generally speaking:
What an embarrassment this troglodyte Savage is. But an appropriately named one. Poking fun at autistic children and their parents -- good grief! An old friend and reader of this blog is living with three young sons who are all autistic. It's either going to make him and his wife into saints, or drive them insane. The comments of a Michael Savage really are beneath contempt -- and I encourage all conservatives to say so.
Now, I'm not sure I'd call Savage a troglodyte, but it's pretty hard to justify this:
Michael Savage, the incendiary radio host who last week characterized nearly every child with autism as “a brat who hasn’t been told to cut the act out,” said in a telephone interview on Monday that he stood by his remarks and had no intention of apologizing to those advocates and parents who have called for his firing over the matter.

“My main point remains true,” Mr. Savage, whose radio audience ranks in size behind only those of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, said in the interview. “It is an overdiagnosed medical condition. In my readings, there is no definitive medical diagnosis for autism.”

On the July 16 installment of his program, which is broadcast every weekday, Mr. Savage suggested that “99 percent of the cases” of autism were a result of lax parenting. He told his audience: “They don’t have a father around to tell them, ‘Don’t act like a moron. You’ll get nowhere in life.’ ” Among the other admonitions he felt children with autism should be hearing, he said, were: “ ‘Straighten up. Act like a man. Don’t sit there crying and screaming, idiot.’ ”

Someone--I don't remember who--offered Savage the best possible lifeline on this, suggesting that maybe he'd confused autism with ADHD. Unfortunately Savage insisted he meant autism, which is frankly incredible.

Let's take a hypothetical example. Suppose at a family Thanksgiving meal your six-year-old nephew whines about sitting at the table, kicks the rungs of the chair, spills some water from his glass onto the tablecloth, and starts poking his fingers in the mashed potatoes. You might be forgiven for assuming general brattitude, even if the child has been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder; you might even be forgiven if you wonder whether ADHD is overdiagnosed, though from the small samples of your nephew's behavior you ever see there's no way for you to know if other behaviors and some learning disabilities combined have caused his doctor to diagnose ADHD.

But the parents of an autistic child, from everything I've read and from those parents I've encountered, would be pretty pleased with this level of behavior. A six-year-old autistic child might refuse to sit at the table altogether and peer out at the company from the floor beneath it; he might decide the mashed potatoes look like soap bubbles and smear them on his face, chin, and arms, or climb on the table to sit in them; he might insist that everyone's water glass ought to contain a salad fork for reasons he can't explain; he might leave his coat on and grow agitated when anyone tried to remove it or suggested he might be more comfortable without it; he might not speak a word, or might speak the same word seven hundred sixty three times in the course of the evening--and all of that would be relatively mild autistic behavior.

How anyone, let alone a grown and reasonably intelligent man, could believe for a second that this sort of behavior is an "act" that can be "cut out" with a little discipline, is beyond me. Clearly this man has no awareness whatsoever of psychological ailments, most of which also can't be "definitively medically diagnosed." What's the "definitive medical diagnosis" for depression, after all? We don't go around suggesting that clinically depressed people should just "snap out of it and lighten up," do we?

Clearly, Michael Savage must ascribe to the Bob Newhart school of psychological understanding. Autistic kids are just putting it all on, the repetitive behaviors and incapacity for speech and strange toilet habits and uncontrolled speech. They just want attention, and their parents are too busy shopping at trendy stores and voting for Democrats to give it to them.

Unfortunately, Savage's view was once the prevalent one: that autism was just bad parenting, particularly bad mothering. The "refrigerator mother" theory was one of the most egregiously insulting and traumatizing psychological theories ever invented as a way of blaming mothers for their children's problems, so it's pretty disheartening to see it resurface, even in a milder and more gender-neutral form. Parents of autistic children should take comfort, though--no intelligent person will give Mr. Savage's "Just Cut It Out" theory any more credibility than it deserves--which is none at all.


Alexandra said...

One of the most ignorant viewpoints I've ever seen! It's hard to believe people still think that way about this condition. I'd expect that in the 19th century, not the 21st.

matthew archbold said...

I don't even know what a trogldysauras (or whatever that was) is but if it's bad it's a fine description of Michael Savage. I can't imagine what he was thinking.
I did watch the Bob Newhart thing and it was one of the funniest things I've seen in a while. thanks.

Paul, just this guy, you know? said...

Have you listened to his show or read his website? Or are you just taking the word of what other people say about what he said?

If they get wrong what the Pope says, why are they so reliable about Savage?

What was the context?

Red Cardigan said...

Paul, I've read some of the transcripts and some direct quotes; I've also heard from regular listeners of the show who say that Savage addresses this and other issues involving children's health the same way, saying we're over-medicating our kids and under-disciplining them, etc.

And I don't disagree with that general point. But as many parents of autistic kids have pointed out, there's no one drug for autism and few drugs are even remotely helpful, so this isn't an over-medication issue--and as I wrote above, it's pretty hard to look at autistic behavior and see a lack of discipline, unless you know little or nothing about autism.

I have listened to Savage's show on a handful of occasions, but we can't even keep it on in the car if the kids are with us--his constant use of pejoratives to denigrate anyone who disagrees with him isn't something I want my kids to think of as appropriate adult behavior. Frankly, the level of discourse on many of these shows is so uncivil in general that I've stopped listening to most of them.

John Thayer Jensen said...

Close friends of ours have an adopted autistic son - adopted when he was about 2 (I think). Their other two adopted children both behave normally, and their discipline seems to us just about right. They have, indeed, achieved significant things with the autistic boy - but he is autistic and it is hard to think of him ever being free of it. He exhibits the classic things - fascination with rotating objects, fixed attentiveness on rituals he creates, etc etc.

Certainly careful guidance is essential here - and it may well be that some diagnoses of autism are wrong. I think, also, that I have heard it is a scale, not an either/or proposition. But I don't think there is any question in at least this one case of the reality of something internal.