Book Review: Autism’s Stepchild, by Phyllis Grilikhes

Though there are many narratives about children on the autism spectrum told by professionals and specialists, Phyllis Grilikhes’s Autism’s Stepchild (2016) stands out because of its historical perspective on the interpretation of autistic traits before the diagnosis became commonplace. Grilikhes’s narrative tells the story of a young girl, Jean, who would be diagnosed with autism nowadays, but in the 1940s and 50s was treated as a psychological oddity, a medical curiosity to be examined and scrutinised with no conclusive explanations for her seemingly abnormal behaviour. Jean’s story is told primarily through her mother, Dora, whom Grilikhes interviewed to capture her perspective as a mother navigating a frequently baffling and hostile medical system in order to secure appropriate care and education for Jean. Dora’s fight is interwoven with Grilikhes’s account of her personal relationship with Jean; Grilikhes worked as an aide for Jean for some years in Berkeley, California, before losing touch with the family after changing careers. We find out about Jean’s relationship with the famed psychologist Erik Erikson; her experiences with institutions and specialised schools that were entirely at sea when faced with somebody whose disability profile did not match the common diagnoses of the day; her abiding friendship with Grilikhes, who nurtured her creativity; and her tumultuous transition from childhood to adolescence and adulthood. Grilikhes has an engaging prose style, effortlessly drawing the reader into her narrative. One gets the sense that one knows Dora’s experiences intimately through Grilikhes’s retelling. Jean, however, is portrayed as mysterious – something of a black box, really – and this comparative lack of insight into Jean’s interpretation of the world may stem from Jean’s struggles with expressive language and Grilikhes’s own prejudices regarding autism.

Though Grilikhes is well-intentioned and seems to care genuinely for Jean and her family’s welfare, Autism’s Stepchild occasionally reflects common—and misguided—cultural tropes about autism and other disabilities. Some of these errors can be explained by the time in which the narrative takes place, but when Grilikhes is speaking in the present tense, it is glaring and mars an otherwise sympathetic narrative. She routinely refers to autistic people and other people with developmental disabilities as being ‘disturbed’ or having ‘mental illnesses’, showing a surprising ignorance of current language used about and by people with developmental disabilities. This would be somewhat more understandable in a layperson, but Grilikhes is a psychologist with years of experience working with people with disabilities and should be aware of changing terminology. She also falls prey to the ‘puzzle of autism’ narrative, in which autistic people are treated as inscrutable oddities—she even uses the word ‘inscrutable’ towards the beginning of the book—rather than fully ensouled people.

Most gallingly, Grilikhes cites the work of Ivar Lovaas – a research psychologist and the creator of what is now known as Applied Behaviour Analysis – as a positive, humanising figure who helped autistic people come into their own and navigate the world more adeptly than they would have without his treatment. According to Grilikhes, Lovaas played an instrumental role in helping Jean adapt to her environment more successfully than she had before. The laudatory treatment that Grilikhes gives Lovaas whitewashes the cruelty that he often inflicted on his patients. At the beginning of his career as a behaviourist, Lovaas used cattle prods and electric shocks to ‘correct’ his students’ behaviour. Though he later shifted to less physically harmful methods, there is no evidence that he fully recanted. Lovaas also collaborated with the disgraced George Rekers, a Christian Right therapist, on ‘conversion therapy’ that used electric shocks and other abusive methods to make gay and gender-non-conforming boys seem straight. The abuse that Lovaas inflicted on generations of students does not merit applause. What was done to these young people was cruel and inhumane, and it is morally irresponsible to ignore his record of maltreatment.

Autism’s Stepchild is worth reading to understand historical approaches to autism identification and treatment; however, Grilikhes’s uncritical treatment of Ivar Lovaas’ therapeutic methods, the inaccurate language, and the ‘puzzle’ stereotype of autism make it difficult for me to recommend it without reservation.

(Disclosure: the author sent me a copy of the book to be reviewed.)

Evangelical Authoritarians and their Angry God (cw: religious abuse, rape, incest, anti-LGBTQ discrimination)

For people who don’t understand how the evangelical, usually Protestant, far-right exerts its influence on conservative Republican politics: let me explain, from the perspective of a social scientist and as a survivor of an evangelical Republican household who held these kinds of beliefs. If you’re unfamiliar with how authoritarian evangelicalism works, it seems utterly ludicrous that Republican politicians continue to pursue their anti-woman and anti-LGBTQ political agenda despite increasing public opposition. Marriage equality and legal abortion enjoy the support of a majority of Americans, but Republicans continue to oppose it steadfastly.

The God of these evangelicals is an authoritarian God who brooks no dissent from the party line. People who disagree with them are members of The World, working to advance Satan’s mission and subvert the will of God. Politics is not merely about competing policies and legislative priorities; it’s spiritual warfare. When conservative Christians battle against marriage equality, transgender rights or abortion, they literally believe that they are using political positions to battle against Satan and his legions of demons. And the stakes couldn’t be higher: if you don’t follow your denomination’s rules exactly, you’re going to hell. Permanent separation from God and his kingdom, and eternal torture as punishment. They’re inculcated with a visceral fear of going to hell, and they don’t want you to go there either. This results in conservative evangelicals encouraging theology and public policy that mandates conformity to their moral and social code, or ostracism for those who don’t. Persuasion isn’t enough for authoritarians. They want you – and the rest of society – to comply. It’s like the Borg from Star Trek; they want you to be assimilated.

Acts 10:34, a Bible passage often misused by conservative evangelicals to justify their position, states that ‘God is not a respecter of persons’. Within a more progressive Christian practice, God’s not being a ‘respecter of persons’ means rejecting partisanship, ethnocentrism and humanity’s foibles: our pettiness, our need for approval instead of doing what is right for those around us, our selfishness, our wantonness, our indifference to others’ suffering. For authoritarian Christians, however, this passage means rejecting the humane in favour of the inhumane in the name of God.

Evangelical Protestant preachers also teach that salvation comes not from good works, but through unalloyed faith in Jesus. It doesn’t matter whether you hide away in a gilded tower, hoarding wealth and treating poor people with disdain, or if you devote your life to helping your community. What matters ultimately is your devotion to Christ. Good works are encouraged by some evangelicals, but they are secondary. Naturally, devotion to Christ means adherence to all the legalistic rules that the authoritarian right considers necessary for entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s easy to support laws that starve poor and disabled people when acts of decency are secondary.

This is why Republican governors like Mike Pence and Pat McCrory push through regressive laws attacking reproductive rights and LGBTQ rights in their states, or why the Republican National Committee produced the most anti-LGBTQ platform in their history during the 2016 Republican National Convention, or why Republican politicians like the supposedly ‘moderate’ Marco Rubio and John Kasich support abortion bans without exceptions for rape or incest. They literally do not care about equal protection. Caring about equality means that they reject authoritarian Christianity. Worldly stakes don’t matter in comparison. They won’t budge because they’ve been conditioned to believe that changing their minds about marriage equality, abortion or trans rights means that they’re going to be roasting in hell after they die. This is why authoritarian conservative evangelicalism is so dangerous: it promotes social inequality and discrimination under the guise of devotion to a loving God, and it inoculates itself against dissent by promising eternal torture to everyone who strays away from the straight and narrow.

Can we put ‘economic anxiety’ to rest?

One month after the election and there’s still people with their hot takes about Why Hillary Lost, Why It Must Be Economic Anxiety! If Bernie Had Won, He Would Be President!

So Steve Bannon, Richard Spencer and David Duke must be economically anxious. People saying stuff like ‘Trump That Bitch’ are economically anxious. People who’ve been calling Obama the N-word for 8 years must be economically anxious. The Ku Klux Klan celebrating Trump’s ‘win’ must be economically anxious. People waving Confederate flags at Trump rallies must be economically anxious. Two Trump supporters beating up a homeless Latino man in Boston in Trump’s name must be because of economic anxiety. People trying to ram through unpopular anti-LGBTQ laws like North Carolina’s bathroom bill must totally be economically anxious.

No, no, no, and a million times, fuck no. This is bullshit. This is an attempt to dismiss what’s being done to women, people of colour, Muslims, Jews, LGBTQ+ people and anyone else who’s at risk under Trump. Basically Trump got ‘elected’ because of a perfect storm of reasons and you’re going to say that it’s just because Hillary Clinton was a bad candidate and she should’ve ignored PoC and women in favour of the ‘Reagan Democrat’ white rust belt voters?

Look, I voted for Bernie. But this is bullshit. It’s dangerous, specious, racist garbage that I’m really fucking tired of hearing from a bunch of entitled white dudes who will be just fine under Trump. I know these guys won’t lift a damn finger to help people who are more vulnerable to what Trump, Pence and the rest of the Republicans are going to do.

I’m not saying Clinton was a perfect candidate. But she got almost 3 million more votes than Trump. There were things that hurt her towards the end like certain partisan Republican FBI agents like James Comey and the NY office that was close with Rudy Giuliani. Russia was out there trying to swing the election for Trump and there’s growing evidence that Trump’s campaign knew about it. Republican voter suppression was a thing in a lot of states, including swing states like Michigan, Wisconsin and North Carolina that would’ve helped Clinton. This was the first general election without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act.

And you’re going to say that it’s just because of economic anxiety. Do you know how I read that? ‘Shut up, minorities, we don’t care about you, and we will gladly throw you under the bus.’ You basically want a left-wing Trump-centred entirely on white interests and continuing to marginalise women, POC, religious minorities and LGBTQ+ people. Fuck you, and fuck the racist Cheeto you’re making excuses for. You are not helping.

Fascism’s at the door. Vladimir Putin’s just threatened our sovereignty. The Klan is marching in the South. And you’re still whining about Bernie Sanders? Give me a fucking break.