Looking Back and Asking Questions

Recently my wife and I were watching a TV segment about a child with extreme emotional problems and was a genuine threat to his siblings. It was part of a piece about the shortage of psychiatric hospital beds for children in America. When the piece was over we put the TV on pause and began talking about our youth in the 1950s.

Neither of us could recall any examples of such children in our small hometown. Our local hospital was nothing more than a large two-story house and our doctors carried most of what they needed in leather bags and regularly made house calls. Few people knew what a pediatrician or psychiatrist was.

Sure, we had kids who were bullies, kids that acted a little goofy, kids with physical defects, kids that weren’t as smart as others, and kids that wore thick glasses. But we didn’t seem to have kids who were violently out of control. Or was there some place they were hidden?

Most counties in our area had old folks homes, poor people homes. homes for orphans, and dog shelters. The state had insane asylums, reform schools, prisons, and schools for the blind. It wasn’t until the 1970s that I learned there were also state institutions for the retarded (always hated that name).

We don’t recall any kids being called autistic and exhibiting the many characteristics of autistic children. I was teaching Special Education in the early 1970s and became convinced that most of those kids were mislabeled. I found them to just be kids in need of help that the regular classroom teacher didn’t have time for. So, the administration slapped the retarded label on them and put them on the short bus.

To maintain my temporary certificate I had to take a bunch of Special Education classes and one of them dealt with the brand new label, learning disabled. There was nothing good about that class, especially that nobody even had a workable definition of what a learning disability was. In the five years I taught Special Ed. I don’t recall seeing a kid that would fit what we call autism today.

In the late 1990s I substituted a fourth grade class and next door to that classroom was a very small class of children with a teacher and maybe two aides. In the classroom they had a quiet room that wasn’t too short of being a lock-down room for the kid who was prone to occasionally go ballistic. Twice during the morning session the school’s principal had to be summoned to add some male muscle. I don’t know where these children came from, they weren’t there in 1970 but, there they were in the late 90s.

In my childhood kids got a chair in the hall or the bench in the principal’s office.  Or maybe they got a stool in the corner with a “dunce” hat on their head. By the turn of the century they may be in lock down.

I’m not being critical or accusatory, I’m just wondering if these children did exist in the 50s but were just squirreled away in their homes or, has something dramatically changed in the intervening seventy years? For years the radical John Birch Society cautioned that fluoride in the water and toothpaste would destroy us.  I’ve also listened to hordes of critics rant about the link between vaccines and autism. Far as I know the only thing that fluoride did was create fewer kids with black holes in their front teeth. As for autism, study after study has shown no link between it and measles vaccine.

One more thing. In my time boys, and to a lesser degree girls, were expected to be balls of chaotic energy. We were boys being boys and our parents and teachers knew that if they could survive long enough we’d grow out of it. In the mid 1960s we began to hear about kids being hyper-active and the cure was something called Ritalin.

We had friends in California who had an eight-year old son who was just a typical eight-year old son. He was energetic, inquisitive, and always wanted to know how things worked. His parents couldn’t accept this so they got the kid hooked on drugs to dull his senses. Did we just create a new condition, coin a new label, and give big pharma another way to make big bucks? The fecking world is now overrun with ADHD kids swallowing all kinds of strange substances that occasionally make them stare deeply into a light bulb.

Week after week we just sit here wondering why and when did so many things change. I suppose old people have wondered about such things for eons. Maybe scratching our heads is why we have fingers.

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