How many people are living with some undiagnosed, unrecognised, neurological problem or disability which caused them difficulty at home and at school? How many people were told they were stupid, or felt they were stupid, when they had a problem such as dyslexia or one of the more obscure neurological deficits such as difficulty sequencing, while the rest of their brain functioned as well as (or better than) most?
Any disability has social and psychological consequences. Poor eyesight is not normally considered a neurological problem, but it is a disability, and it does affect the ways people feel about themselves. It is not only that wearing glasses as a child was a social stigma until Joanna Rowling gave us Harry Potter; the shortsightedness itself causes problems.
Until a teacher noticed that she could not see the blackboard, Alice’s poor eyesight was undiagnosed. At the age of five she failed to recognise a girl, Elizabeth, across the road and was accused of deliberately ignoring her. ‘But you looked right at me!’ Elizabeth said, as Alice denied having seen her. Disbelieving, in revenge, Elizabeth and her friends deliberately ignored Alice. Many years later, Alice remembered this: her own incomprehension, the serious undermining of her belief in herself; the helplessness of being unable to deal with being deliberately left out of games, and the reluctance to go to school which followed. It was only many years later, after reading ‘The Injured Self’, that she traced its origin in a minor disability, not of her social competence (which is how she saw it then) but of her eyesight: she still suspected, of course, that she might have had other, worse, faults (not only ‘being clever’ or ‘posh’ – i.e. better-off ) which these girls saw and disliked.
As we become more knowledgeable about the brain we are beginning to recognise many common neurological problems. Dyslexia (problems with reading or spelling), anosognosia (difficulties recognising faces), dyspraxias (clumsiness), along with autism, Aspergers and alexithymia (difficulties recognising emotions) are all increasingly acknowledged in conversation, as in: ‘He’s a bit Aspergers, you know.’ People with any of these problems are likely to have more difficulties and receive much worse social responses than are caused by short-sightedness.
In ‘The injured self’, which Alice recommended to me, Dov and Malca Aleksandrowicz describe a young child who clearly had some mild brain damage which made it hard for him to control his emotional responses. His parents and school found it difficult to cope with him and by the time he became a teenager he was dropping out of school, drinking and taking drugs. In multiple diagnostic assessments, signs of early brain damage were often overlooked. I wondered how many adults now struggling to live with the consequences of such behaviour, might equally have suffered from some mild, undiagnosed neurological difficulty.
They also describe psychotherapy which addresses these problems, helping the child or adult to understand the idiosyncracies of their own biological makeup, to recognise which of their behaviours are a result of attempts to deal with, deny, cover up or hide from the ways in which they are different from others. They also address the ways in which parents adjust their behaviour when faced with a child who is sensitive, physically or emotionally, or whose infantile reactions (such as refusing to be cuddled, or inability to tolerate being undressed) are puzzling or even hurtful to a new parent. They point out, with examples, how problems can be assumed to derive from parental behaviour, when in fact that behaviour was caused by biological idiosyncracies of the baby.
The Aleksandrowiczs feel these issues are not given enough weight by therapists, but they also point out that it is very difficult for therapists, as for parents and the person themselves, to disentangle which aspects of a child’s (or adult’s) behaviour are caused by a ‘hardwiring’ problem and which by social or psychological reactions to it. I discuss this in my own new book, The Trouble with Illness (Jessica Kingsley, 2017).
The most important point they make, to my mind, is the way subtle, unrecognised neurological deficits or differences may have wide-ranging implications, in terms not only of educational achievement, but of relations with parents and siblings, and in the ways people feel about themselves.
Reference: Dov R. Aleksandrowicz, Malca K. Aleksandrowicz. 1989 The Injured Self: The Psychopathology And Psychotherapy Of Developmental Deviations (Gordon and Breach Science Publishers )