When did "different" come to require a diagnosis?
The child who once was an energetic boy now has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. The shy kid who likes math and science more than his classmates do is "on the autism spectrum." We have conflated normal-defined-as-average with normal-defined-as-free-from-disease, and view with suspicion anyone who strays too far—in any direction—from the common herd. It's a very contemporary diagnosis, too: today's hyperactive child would likely have been an admired leader in Viking society.
We are learning, possibly too late, of the dangers of narrowing the once-vast diversity of life on our planet, especially in agriculture, where nearly every Thanksgiving dinner is dependent on a single breed of turkey—turkeys so stupid as to be unable to reproduce without human intervention—and where one variety-specific disease could wipe out nearly every existing banana plant. I believe we have a similar problem in the human population, where for all we talk about the importance of diversity, we are identifying more and more people as abnormal—people who would in an earlier day have been considered merely quirky, or even honored for their differences. We then attempt to "cure" them by squashing them into standardized boxes, the most common of which is school.
I officially gave up on the psychiatric profession's labels when I discovered hyperlexia: "the precocious ability to read words without prior training in learning to read typically before the age of five." If children aren't reading by the end of first grade, schools and parents begin to worry, and yet reading before kindergarten is a problem? What's with that?
The proximate inspiration for this post was observing grandson Joseph, age three, as he is learning to speak. His speech is much more echolalic than I am accustomed to, and because that is yet another psychiatric diagnosis, I was wondering if I should be concerned—though it's difficult even to think of a child who speaks two languages as being "behind" in speech.
Now that I'm where I can observe Joseph directly and interact with him I can laugh at any concerns, though I doubt that would stop the psychiatrists from labelling him. His speech is definitely different from that of the average child his age, and so is the way he is figuring out language patterns. But it's not bad; it's just different. And fascinating.
Instead of repeating words and short phrases that he hears from other people, then gradually putting them together into longer and longer verbalizations, Joseph remembers, and repeats, entire sentences and long passages, such as the name of one of one of his favorite Frederic Church paintings: Hooker and Company Journeying through the Wilderness from Plymouth to Hartford in 1636. Really. With such things as these as his basic language building blocks, it's not surprising that his approach to speech is unusual. Instead of creating phrases of increasing complexity by a more additive method, he starts with a long sentence, takes it apart, and puts it back together.
Recently he and I were watching the people walk up and down a main street in Zermatt; more precisely, we were observing their dogs. "Here comes a dog," I said, and Joseph repeated, "Here comes a dog." Then he expanded with, "Here comes a white dog." Later, he proclaimed, "Here comes another dog," and still later, "Here comes a little, white dog." Same pattern, expanded from the inside out.
It is my totally unverifiable theory that Joseph started out thinking in large chunks of language. For example, "put your shoes on" is associated, as an entire sentence, with the act of putting on his shoes. Thus, whether describing his actions or asking for help, "put your shoes on" has been the phrase of choice (sometimes modified to "no put your shoes on"). Gradually, however, he is dissecting these chunks and discovering the recombinant possibilities.
It's fascinating to observe. It's different. It's not normal-defined-as-average. But it's certainly not a disease.