Increased Hope for Handicapped Youngsters
AMONG the most precious gifts that the Creator has bestowed upon humankind is the gift of reproducing our kind, of having children. The birth of an infant brings great happiness to its parents. As Jesus, the Great Teacher, said: “A woman, when she is giving birth, has grief, . . . but when she has brought forth the young child, she remembers the tribulation no more because of the joy that a man has been born into the world.”—John 16:21.
But at times that happiness is all too short-lived. When is that? When an infant is born with some kind of handicap—mental, emotional or physical. At present there are said to be seven million children in the United States suffering from one form of handicap or another. Particularly is it an incredible shock when parents learn that their newly born baby suffers from some form of mental retardation such as mongolianism.a
Years ago there were few professional agencies to which parents could turn for counsel and support in doing the most loving and helpful thing for such a retarded child. But today the situation is different, especially in the larger cities. So much has this situation changed that some say that the present could well be “the dawn of a golden age for the retarded.’’
For one thing, among recent reports is one appearing in Psychology Today (April 1975) telling of the trend toward caring for handicapped children as far as possible in close association with average or normal children. Instead of having all such handicapped youngsters kept in institutions by themselves, as has been the custom, more and more of them are being cared for in a way that allows them to associate with average children. This is proving very beneficial.
Typical of the improved way of dealing with handicapped youngsters is the Washington, D.C., program sponsored by the United States Department of Health, Education and Welfare. It takes youngsters from mental institutions and gives them specialized training, at the same time weaning them away gradually from drugs—something institutions often heavily depend on in dealing with retarded or other mentally ill patients. As a result, many of these youths are able to take their place in regular schools, or to hold down jobs if beyond school age.
Today throughout the United States there are “Infant Development Programs” ready to help retarded youngsters. According to a report, these “infants of any intelligence level can develop and learn if the special training they need is set in motion soon enough.” Even more encouraging is the position taken by the Pacific State Hospital at Pomona, California, “that there is no level at which children are ‘hopeless.’”
It has been learned that most babies are eager to explore their surroundings, and so are able to develop mentally and physically on their own even when their surroundings are not ideal. Retardation, however, can result when the environment is really very bad. The retarded child, on the other hand, must be coaxed along if it is to develop intellectually. In fact, its mother must devote all the time she possibly can to such coaxing. That means talking to the child, entertaining it, encouraging it to be physically active.
Just how to go about this task most effectively requires instruction and training, and this mothers can obtain in many of the larger cities. Some of these services provide professional help; workers spend an hour and a half each week teaching both mother and child right in their own home. Some communities also have provision for letting retarded children stay at such centers for a period of weeks, receiving instruction and training. Those involved in this activity say ‘it is a tragedy to give up on a retarded child and send it to an institution.’
Stressing the importance of physical activity for retarded youngsters is the report made by a committee of the American Academy of Pediatrics. The retarded child needs more physical activity than does the normal child, yet it is likely to get less. Neglect along this line both worsens his mental handicap and harms him physically, resulting in poor coordination and obesity. One private agency in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, encourages mothers to begin teaching their mongoloid infants when they are but five weeks old.
New and Successful Approaches
Another form of treatment that has produced striking results in severely retarded children is what is known as the “BallBird-Stick” method. It is based on the premise that all letters of the alphabet are formed either by a circle (a ball), a triangle (a bird) or a straight line (a stick). By this method psychologists have been able to teach children with an IQ of only twenty or thirty to read and write. And with this mental improvement comes also an improvement in personality.
Typical is the case of one severely retarded eighteen-year-old girl who kept throwing tantrums, had little spontaneous speech and spent most of the day rocking in a rocking chair. As a result of the “BallBird-Stick” method, she now talks freely, rarely has tantrums, no longer spends her day rocking and has developed a sense of humor. In fact, it is the rule that retardees trained by this method, some as old as forty-nine years, greatly improve in personality, manifest an upright rather than a slumped stance, and no longer spend the day rocking in a chair. Moreover, they manifest concern about their appearance, wanting to look presentable. These are all healthy signs. The staffs at such centers report that, while at first these retardees seemed to be “nonpeople”—as far as communicating with them was concerned—as a result of such training they now impress others as actually being people.
Another successful approach to the mentally retarded, either due to mongolism or to some type of brain damage, has been by means of music. The originator of this method, Richard Weber of Peoria, Illinois, has used a musical system by means of which many retarded children are learning to play an instrument. One child, whom it was impossible to live with and who seemed unable to learn anything, soon became quite normal by the aid of this system. By means of Weber’s “Musicall” method, as he calls it, hundreds of children, some of whom were severely retarded and had never spoken a word, have been brought to the point where they “learn to learn.” Concerning this method, a director of a retarded-children’s center stated: “Weber’s innovations are destroying a number of stereotyped notions. Since we began using his methods, we see children changing from vegetables into persons.”
The young child mentioned above, with whom it seemed impossible to live, was actually a hyperactive youngster. Hyperactivity (also known as hyperkinesia) is afflicting more and more children, mostly boys. It is marked by extreme restlessness and diminished attention span, such hyperactive children being unable to keep their young developing minds on any one subject long enough to add to their fund of knowledge. Complicating matters is the fact that such children are likely to be unruly, stubborn, and five times as likely to get into the poison bottle as are other children. Truly they are a problem for their parents.
The most common and popular method of treating these children is by resorting to various drugs—strange to say—drugs that stimulate adults but seem to calm these children. But more and more voices are being raised objecting to the drug approach to this problem. For one thing, there is always the danger of children becoming addicted and so requiring drugs after they become adults. Also, there is the question of the harm that these drugs can do. And further, such drugs are likely to disguise personality problems or disorders that often lie at the bottom of hyperactivity. For this reason, more and more child psychiatrists recommend that parents be quite firm in dealing with such children.
It is also an unfortunate fact that, as one psychiatrist observed, the physical examination is often overlooked, which, really, should be the very first step. Time and again this psychiatrist found that the child’s hyperactivity was due to some physical flaw such as a defective heart valve or some metabolic deficiency. According to him, “it makes no scientific sense to suppress hyperactivity with drugs without diagnosing and then correcting the underlying medical or physiological problem.” To cite one example, a hyperactive boy kept setting the family couch on fire. Upon being given drugs, he desisted. But when the drug treatment was suspended, on the assumption that he had been cured, what did he do? He burned down the family garage!
Various “Somatic” Programs
Still another approach, and one that has proved to be extremely effective time and again, is nutrition. Time and again a boy’s hyperactivity is caused, strangely enough, by low blood sugar, a condition known as hypoglycemia. This can be treated by a highly restricted diet that is rich in protein and low in carbohydrates and, in particular, one that avoids all the “junk foods,” which include soda “pop,” all “goodies” containing refined sugar, and potato chips. At the same time, the metabolic approach includes giving a boy large doses of certain vitamins, as well as essential trace minerals. Such treatment has also been very effective in treating children suffering from the opposite extreme of hyperactivity, namely, autism and even those afflicted with schizophrenia.
Then again, more than one psychiatrist has found that food additives, such as artificial colors and flavors and antioxidants (added to keep food from spoiling) may cause a child to become hyperactive. When these were removed from the food that the hyperactive children ate, they became normal. This furnishes no small problem, as about 90 percent of foods that kids like to eat contain such elements, among the chief offenders being hot dogs.
Within the past year another factor has been implicated as a probable cause for hyperactivity in children, namely, artificial lighting, especially fluorescent lighting. Thus one psychiatrist found that, when he changed the lighting fixtures so as to include the natural spectrum of light rays and shielded the children from the X rays that usually are emitted from the cathode ends of these lamps, the hyperactive children became normal.
Nor should the approach advocated by Nobel Prize winner Nicholas Tinbergen for some types of emotional problems be overlooked. In Science, July 5, 1974, he tells about the value of the muscular approach, which might be termed a gentle but very knowledgeable, properly administered massage from head to foot that releases body tensions and causes the muscles and nerves to function normally. Tinbergen, on the one hand, was pleased to note how many men known for their great learning have spoken favorably about it, but, on the other hand, he was alarmed “because we found this corner of psychiatry in a state of disarray, and because we discovered that many of the established experts—doctors, teachers, and therapists—are so little open to new ideas and even facts.”
All the foregoing ways of treating hyperactivity might be said to be “somatic” approaches, in that they attack the problem through the body. In contrast is the “Check-Mark” program, which uses psychological means, namely, training and teaching methods. In this new educational program children are given “checks” and “marks” depending on how well they behave and perform, and this allows them to choose certain rewards. It requires a great deal of patience and understanding on the part of the teachers, for the children need sustained individual attention. Some 80 percent of hyperactive children are returned to normal in about eighteen months, the remainder taking somewhat more time.
Truly, from all the foregoing it is clear that there is increased hope for children suffering from either retardation or hyperactivity. Not only do their parents have a choice of many kinds of professional help available, but also implied is that there are many things that the parents themselves can do that could prove very helpful.
a Mongolianism is caused by a chromosomal defect. the cell nucleus having 47 instead of 46 chromosomes. In the United States one out of six hundred births is a mongoloid.