Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Where the Wild Things Used to Be

The other day my eight-year-old asked, "Daddy, what does 'integrity' mean?" My heart warmed--it was a Norman Rockwell moment, my chance to impart one of the primary virtues. I tried to explain it in an age-appropriate way, and asked why he inquired? "Oh, it's also a brand of alarm system." (After having moved on from a great enthusiasm for natural disasters, his current preoccupation is with smoke and fire alarms and other indicators of incendiary mayhem and transgression). More Jackson Pollock than Normal Rockwell. Hopefully he'll remember that it's not just a brand name.

This came to mind when I read Anne Applebaum's Slate post on ADHD in literature, specifically embodied by Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. It has been many years since I first read of their adventures in oppositional defiance, but she seems about right that while Mark Twain doubtless romanticized their naughtiness, they lived in a time far more tolerant of disobedience, distraction, and disregard for academic achievement. Or maybe "tolerant" is the wrong word: it was an age that left more space, both physically and psychologically, for such things.

In Madness and Civilization and other works, Michel Foucault argued that around the middle of the last millenium, when the first glimmers of the Enlightenment appeared, Western civilization began to become distinctly less hospitable toward mental disorder. The mad, who for centuries had wandered more or less unmolested along the margins of society, came to be seen as a greater threat to new priorities for the order and management of populations. Previously seen as harmless or perhaps even as alternative sources of vision, the mad were increasingly perceived as a menace.

I wonder if the escalating pathologizing of ADHD features could represent a second great phase of this "civilizing" process, if unfocused energies and scattered cognition present challenges to a logocentric society that are more subtle than those of mania or psychosis, but ultimately intolerable nonetheless. As Hanna Rosin straightforwardly argued in The Atlantic, the culture and the economy increasingly valorize and reward calm, structured, meticulous, and persistent verbal order, all of which may be more commonly found in women, on average, than in men.

It is not only the case that expectations for order are higher, that there are far more moving pieces, so to speak, in a post-industrial information society. Technology also amplifies any specific potential source for disorder, via means such as automobiles, firearms, the Internet, or in the case of rogue terrorists, nuclear or biological weapons. It is like not only building a bridge far longer than has ever been attempted before, but also in unprecedented water and weather conditions. The cognitive inefficiencies of ADHD, which often of course entail great creativity, may come to be a cultural luxury for which we have to fight to maintain space (the playgrounds and natural parks of human cognition perhaps).


Retriever said...

Have always loved that picture! Good post. Agree about the space. It is partly just physical: Even tho people a century ago lived in smaller houses and apartments, children were allowed outside to roam. Although plenty got hurt, into trouble and/or abused, kids with ADHD got to burn off their energy, got to explore and got to find things they were interested in and could pursue with persistence. Because, of course, if you lock a kid up in a boring environment like a classroom or a living room, they will fidget and break things unless seduced by a Game Boy or endless video games or the internet.

Another, and seemingly contradictory factor is that our houses and schools are incredibly cluttered nowadays and this distracts and disturbs people of all ages with ADHD. ALthough we stereotypically think of fussy overstuffed Victorian spaces, we only see museums and remains of rich middle class and elite households. Most regular people had spartan surroundings. Schoolrooms and children's sleeping quarters were bare. Well, if you think of it, if you are trying to get a fidgetty kid to concentrate on memorize a dreary times table on the blackboard, is it going to be easier in a stark classroom with bare walls and only the flag, and a map of the US, or in a modern classroom with learning corners and beanbags, and computers with screensavers and hanging art projects, and posters all over the walls, and six fish swimming and two guinea pigs squaking, and a snake sunning itself on the window terrarium. Plus 26 half finished Halloween masks drying on top of the bookshelves, and a bunch of cubbies with everybody's brightly colored superhero lunch hero lunchboxes showing. Plus colored carpet tiles. And periodic loud announcements on the PA system "School, today is Cinco de Mayo" or whatever. You get the idea. When I used to go into my kids' elementary school to help the kids with learning disabilities with reading, I found the I was distracted by the surroundings. How much more so must a kid with ADHD be! And yet it is a rare school that will let such a kid do one of the few things that has been found to help some of them: put on Ipod headphones to shut out the world and listen to their own music to help them work.

I agree that part of the problem is the amplifying power of technology.

ALthough my own kid has other issues besides ADHD, we found that ruthlessly cutting out certain kinds of technology (either completely, or for certain time periods) helped a great deal. FOr example, his sisters had been thrilled and happy to watch Mr. Rogers Neighborhood for 1/2 an hour as their sole TV when preschoolers. But their brother couldn't wait, and wanted more and there were so many battles, that we just put the TV in the attic for 4 years. Things were much better without it. Even now, when he is completely addicted to the internet (as his mama is just slightly (ahem ahem)), he always improves when we go up north and he has a few days when he has to go cold turkey. He sleeps and reads more, calms down. Even tho his perseverative behaviors increase.

Sorry to go on so...

I am really enjoying your latest posts. :)

Novalis said...

Also perhaps the United States is overrepresented in terms of ADHD genes. All those self-selected restless immigrants within a relatively short time...