Age of Afflictions: Disorder or Quirk?

The East Village Mamele

By Marjorie Ingall

Published January 21, 2008, issue of January 25, 2008.
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Maxine has quirks. She refuses to wear tights, turtlenecks, jeans or anything made of wool, claiming all those things are categorically “too itchy.” She hates having her teeth or hair brushed, wailing, “It hurts!” The texture of some moisturizers makes her shudder. When a street sweeper or Harley Davidson roars by, she grabs my leg with the intensity and ferocity of Dr. Phil leaping at an opportunity for self-promotion. (We live near the Hell’s Angels clubhouse, so there’s a lot of terrified leaping.) She won’t touch challah dough — the feeling of it freaks her out. Is something wrong with my child?

We live in an age when there’s a diagnosis for everything. Like many anxious parents, I need to be forcibly restrained from the Googling. (I call it “the Google” when I’m feeling particularly self-mocking and vulnerable.) Maxine fits a lot of the criteria for Sensory Integration Dysfunction, a neurological disorder causing difficulty processing information from the five senses. Kids with sensory issues may have trouble tolerating and processing sights, sounds or motion that don’t trouble other kids. This isn’t a disease recognized in the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual; it’s often diagnosed and treated by occupational therapists.

Part of me thinks too many of us are too quick to pathologize our kids. Don’t get me wrong; I think many newly named or newly common diagnoses are absolutely real: Asperger’s, nonverbal learning disorder, sensory attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. And I believe there are many kids who benefit hugely from treatment. Naming and claiming a diagnosis can be a big step in reducing stigma and making families’ lives better.

But I also suspect there’s a vast middle ground of kids like Maxie, kids who are just a little… odd. In “Quirky Kids: Understanding and Helping Your Child Who Doesn’t Fit In — When to Worry and When Not to Worry” (Ballantine, 2003), Perri Klass and Eileen Costello, pediatricians at the Boston University School of Medicine, write about, well, when to worry and when not to worry. And I suspect a lot of parents choose to worry. They embrace and snuggle that worry like a teddy bear.

The stereotype of the Jewish Mother is that of an obsessive chaleria, but I think my entire generation of parents — Jewish and not, mother and father — has reached new heights of angsty kid-obsession. We dress our kids like mini-me’s, dwell over whether their rooms work with our mod aesthetic, view their every move as a reflection on us as People of Taste and Discernment. We want our kids to be brilliant, but also super-well-rounded and super-social. And competitiveness starts early: We monitor our fetuses’ development week by week on Babycenter.com (my zygote had better get limb buds faster than my coworker’s zygote!); the moment our kids are born we compare who’s sitting, who’s walking, how many words, how good a sleeper. We spend way too much time on the Google. And I really do know several parents who bragged about their kids’ stratospheric Apgar scores. (Dude. Yale doesn’t care.)

My father, a psychiatrist, used to say, “Jewish children are all either gifted or learning disabled.” Just like the kids in Lake Wobegon, Jewish kids are never average. Because acknowledging that your kid faces some extra challenges is tough for hard-driving, high-achieving parents. They get defensive. One boasted to me, “Gifted children are more likely to be hypersensitive!” Ugh. I hate the term gifted anyway; I maintain that all children have gifts, and I really don’t mean that in a sanctimonious “let’s dance with scarves” hippie way. Maybe being hypersensitive is actually part of your kid’s gift. Who knows?

In any case, there’s much more awareness of kids’ differences and many more early intervention options for kids under 5 than there were a few decades ago. Kiki Schaffer, director of the Parenting and Family Center at the 14th Street Y, said, “The field has changed. At first I was skeptical, thinking, ‘Are we in an age when we have to pathologize everything? This is something the child will outgrow; gimme a break.’ But now that I’ve seen the work that’s been done, especially with premature children, I’m impressed. If you do certain kinds of therapy early you really can move the child along.”

The downside, as Schaffer sees it, is when a diagnosis comes between a parent and a child. “If a parent becomes obsessed, and feels ashamed and disappointed in his or her child, it can get in the way of the relationship,” she said. Parents, therapists and educators have to ask whether the benefits of treatment for a kid’s troubles outweigh the potential negatives. “If, say, all the family’s afternoons are taken up with therapy and they’re stressed, that’s not good,” Schaffer said. “But there are people who are helped enormously, and therapy can change lives.”

The upshot: How afflicted is your kid, and what’s your tolerance for quirkiness? There are lots of nonconformist families who are proud of their unconventional kids, Schaffer noted. “My first child walked at 10 months, and my second at 17-and-a-half months, but there was no early intervention back then,” she said. “My second was just a happy, smiley little person, and the world came to her. I figured when she was ready to walk, she’d walk. Today she walks, she dances, she runs, she mountain-climbs.” (Her story reminds me of the joke about the kid who never spoke. He was otherwise healthy, and his family accepted his silence. Then one day when he was 5, at the breakfast table, he said, “Mom, can you please reheat my oatmeal?” The family was shocked! He could talk! Why had he never spoken before? “Well, the oatmeal was always hot before!”)

Basically, my kid’s happy. It’s not like she won’t wear any clothes at all, or shoes. She loves school. She’s social. And did I mention that she has a father who won’t wear turtlenecks or wool sweaters either?

So I don’t buy turtlenecks or wool sweaters. (In an overheated New York apartment, they’re kind of pointless anyway.) I’ve cut the “itchy” tags out of Max’s clothes; I’ve passed all her tights along to cousin Shirley so that their presence in Max’s sock drawer doesn’t give me agita; I’ve stocked up on leggings and these fetching little legwarmers called BabyLegs that make her look like a teeny Jennifer Beals (the 1980s welding one, not the 2000s pantsuited lesbian one). I hug her when a motorcycle thunders by. She hugs back, hard. It’s not so bad.

Write to Marjorie at mamele@forward.com.


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