Autism spectrum/A few impertinent questions/Does free-will exist?

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Question 23

Do we have any choice about what we think? Our brains work while we sleep, and we sometimes awake to find solutions that were unresolved problems when we went to bed. Some people have speculated that we each develop filters to determine which thoughts we allow ourselves to consider and which ones we just automatically dismiss. Children, before developing such filters, can believe any thought that pops into their heads. Filters seem to be less effective when we sleep, and we believe all sorts of things in our dreams. (Could inadequate filter systems be an aspect of some mental illness?) All this seems to have led some scientists to conclude that our mental activity is a nothing but a mechanical process, of which we are merely passive observers. However I agonize over some of my thoughts, and I am conscious of doing so. I am confident of some limited ability to change and overcome my thinking habits by exercise of my free-will. I have the ability to either accept or reject any idea that occurs to me. I read one philosopher speculate that this ability to reject thoughts may be the most significant aspect of free-will. We may not have complete freedom of thought, but we have some. We are each responsible for maintaining a view of reality that fits together as consistently as possible, and that requires mental effort. I can't imagine not believing in my own free-will.

  • -*-*

The clinic where we were told Tony was hopelessly retarded was part of San Francisco State College, funded by the State Department of Education. Tony, aged ten, and with a diagnosis of retardation, was surely now eligible for special-education classes. I again contacted our school psychologist. Tony was admitted to a class for autistic children, an experimental class using operant conditioning. (When I first took Tony to the psychologists, few people had heard of autism, but since then it had increased dramatically in our society.) The children in the class to which Tony was admitted were rewarded with an M&M candy for each desirable response.

"It's illegal to use special-education funds for this class because the children aren't retarded," the school psychologist sometimes told the parents conspiratorially, "but we do it anyway."

Most of the children had been in the class for some time. They had received many diagnoses, including disturbed, autistic, schizophrenic and neurologically impaired. Their retardation probably had many causes. Unlike Tony, most of them appeared to have less than perfect nervous systems. The school district had refused to admit Tony to this class while he was diagnosed autistic, but he was now allowed to attend with an official diagnosis of retardation. I hoped we had finally escaped from that “scientific study” that had seemed to plague us for so long. It had not been a pleasant experience. I was grateful that Tony was finally in school. The first day he sat down in his little chair, squeezed his eyes shut and stuck his fingers in his ears.

"Did you ever see such determination not to learn?" the teacher commented with a laugh.

Tony's negative attitude was short lived however, and he soon loved school. A bus picked him up every morning and delivered him home in the afternoon. Keeping up with Tony had been a full time job, and having a few hours to myself felt luxurious. Life became more relaxed for our entire family. Academics were stressed, and the teachers were convinced they were going to cure the children's retardation. They encouraged the parents to think of their retarded child growing up to be a doctor or lawyer. Tony was toilet trained by operant conditioning, for us, one of the most exciting accomplishments of his childhood.

Psychotherapy was the first treatment the medical profession proposed for autism. Parents formed organizations and rebelled against psychotherapy for mothers of autistic children. Dr. Bernard Rimland, himself the father of an autistic child started one such organization. However they wrote in one of their first newsletters, “We aspire to be more than just an anti-psychiatry organization; we must also be for something”. Many imaginative treatments were tried. Drug treatments included LSD and anti-psychotic drugs. Vitamins were also prescribed, but with no pharmaceutical industry to promote them, they never attracted a wide following. Other treatments were rage therapy (a psychiatrist screaming at the child), playing with dolphins, hypnosis, Sensory Integration (playing soft music into the child's ears though ear-phones), a multitude of teaching techniques and patterning. This last consisted of constant manipulation of the retarded child's arms and legs by the entire family and an army of volunteers. The manipulators, working in relays could rest, but the autistic child was subjected to the treatment for most of his non-sleeping hours. Facilitated communication was another treatment. A therapist supported the autistic child's arm while the child typed messages. Some of these children didn't even know the alphabet. In fact, some of them didn't even look at the keyboard. Nevertheless the occasional profound messages were attributed to the child. And of course the idea persisted that being confined to a room and interacting with a highly educated, well-paid professional, such as a psychologist for a few hours a week might do the trick.

I would have taken advantage of any "treatment" I thought wouldn't harm Tony. The fact is, I endured psychotherapy for two and a half years so he could spend an hour a week with a psychologist. Perhaps the hardest thing we do for our children is acknowledge that we can't achieve things for them. I remember when Guy was having trouble with arithmetic in the third grade. I put up papers all over the house, including covering the bathroom walls, with 5+8=13, 8+9=17, etc., in an effort to help him. Guy was offended. He indignantly took down all my signs. In other words, "Butt out, Mom!” I felt Tony deserved the same respect. No child should experience his family's disapproval of his basic nature. It was a time when scientific studies were regarded with reverence, and some awful experiments were inflicted upon the public without their knowledge or consent. (Before we were aware of its harmful effects scientists subjected entire populations to atomic radiation, just to see what would happen.) Many of the psychological exercises and "treatments" devised for autistic children were probably beneficial - might help any retarded child, not just those with autistic personalities. However I feel compassion for gullible parents who suffer under the illusion that some behavior-modification exercise might cure their child's retardation.

Tony remained in the class for autistic children for three years, and was then transferred to a regular special-education class for “trainable” retarded children. Thus Tony’s retardation seemed to gain more official recognition, and it was one of my painful moments. I was forced to stop fantasizing about him attending college. Tony's special-education teachers were skillful, dedicated and patient. I was once told that the school system hired a specialist for a few weeks, just to try to teach Tony to read, a service that other children in Tony’s class didn’t seem to be receiving. I could only conclude that Tony was still benefiting from that secret “scientific experiment”. Tony didn't learn to read, but I was grateful for their efforts. Most children grow, including those diagnosed autistic and retarded. Tony's teachers taught him many things, such as to follow orders and function as part of a group. He learned to distinguish between men and women on restroom doors; not to cross streets at a red light; to make his bed; and to wash his clothes and fold them neatly in his drawer. Special-education helps retarded children learn to live in protected environments. It doesn't claim to cure anything.

I joined Marin Aid to Retarded Children and volunteered to serve as secretary. The parents I met there sometimes commented that only here, among other parents who understood, did they feel comfortable laughing about their retarded child. Laughter is something all children deserve, but parents who have no experience with retardation are usually too terrified of the condition to do much laughing. Professionals who teach and work with retarded children have overcome such inhibitions, and special education can be a joyful place. We managed to provide Tony with a happy childhood, one that included laughter, and I don't think he has ever felt regret or shame over who he is.

Guy and Sherry used to declare with amusement that Tony was only mildly retarded, but severely lazy. After he was taught to make his bed he would sleep on top, instead of between the sheets, so as to avoid that chore. He could talk when he chose to, but speech seemed to require great effort, and he usually preferred not to bother. Talking was like a foreign language for Tony, and I was reminded of how I struggled to carry on a conversation in the foreign languages I had studied. He did have talents though. His curiosity and imagination were unusual for such a retarded child. Tony's class went roller skating and an invisible playmate, a "big brown pussy-dog named Achi-Cha-Cha", supposedly skated with Tony. Tony's mischief was imaginative, and he sometimes told on himself with appealing innocence.

"Tony didn't break your flower," he protested one morning. I examined the house plants and found one broken at the stem, but neatly mended with scotch tape.

A stranger, unaware of Tony's retardation, once asked him, "What do you plan to be when you grow up, young man?"

"Bald on top," Tony replied innocently.

Although Tony didn't often speak, his occasional startling statements were sometimes delightful. One evening at dinner I was silently nursing a pique because Ike had stopped by the officers club for a few drinks, and he was trying to tease me out of my bad mood. Guy and Sherry were eating in silence, electing to remain neutral.

“Daddy's up to no good!” Tony suddenly exclaimed in a voice suggesting that he‘d just reached a shocking conclusion. All of us, including Mommy and Daddy, burst into laughter. (Ike’s drinking caused us unhappiness, but we learned to live with it, and it didn’t destroy our marriage.)

The most startling of Tony's behaviors was echolalia, which lasted several months. At about the age of eight and a half, he began echoing, with utter lack of comprehension, long sentences he heard on television. He could say "justification for escalating the conflict in Vietnam" without mispronouncing a syllable. Much of the time Tony was happy and playful, but he could suddenly become enraged and destructive. We were eating in a restaurant one day. How handsome and well behaved Tony is today, I thought, watching him with pride. Then maybe he hit his knee on something under the table. We were often not sure of the cause of his rages. He screamed and began throwing glasses and dishes. I jumped up and tried to hurry him outside past all the silent, stunned people who had stopped eating to gape at his tantrum. He managed to grab one more glass from a table we passed and smash it on the floor.

He would spin things. He'd twirl a rope or chain, or he'd pick a branch off a tree or bush and walk around vigorously shaking it. He became unable to tolerate scolding. Although we tried to correct him in a calm, quiet voice, he would become upset and demand that we repeat whatever we said. His little quirk seemed harmless enough at first. Then he began insisting we repeat - again, and again. We were unable to prevent irritation from creeping into our voice, which further upset Tony. He came home from school, angry, exited from the bus, and then turned and kicked a dent in the side of it. As punishment he had to stay home for a week. Tony seemed indifferent to his suspension, but I lived in fear that the teachers might decide they couldn't handle him. The first day he was allowed to return to class, he kicked a window out of the bus. I remembered the years Tony hadn't attended school and dreaded the possibility that we might be forced to return to that life. Tony‘s insistence that we repeat things became more exasperating. There seemed no end to the number of times he demanded something be repeated. I tried to joke about it. I threatened him. I tried to bribe him. One evening I was running Tony's bath, and he started to get into the tub.

I said, "No, it's not ready yet."

"Say no it's not ready yet," Tony ordered.

"No, dear, it's not ready yet."

I had tried to suppress my annoyance, but apparently Tony sensed my irritation. "Say no it's not ready yet!" he again demanded.

“No, Tony I’m not going to repeat it again,” I said, and I forced myself to remain silent. I made him get dressed. He went out in the back yard and screamed, and kicked the house and threatened to break windows. I kept a serene expression frozen upon my face, and for some reason Tony didn't carry out his threats. Later I was cooking chicken. Tony came in and tried to take a drumstick.

I said, "No, it's not ready y-- " Oh damn, I thought, biting off the words. Now he would start all over again.

"Say no it's not ready yet!" Tony demanded.

I gritted my teeth and remained silent. Tony finally went off and tried to persuade his brother and sister to repeat the words. We didn't cure Tony of making us repeat things, but eventually he relented a little. Everyone in our special-education department made heroic efforts to solve the problems of each retarded child, and the teachers decided some older, bossy boys on Tony's bus might be upsetting him. They assigned him to transportation with quieter children, and Tony stopped trying to demolish the bus. However if we sometimes thought we'd found reasons for Tony's rages, at other times no one could fathom their cause.

"Tell me how much is four and four or I'll tickle you," Guy would say. This was Guy's scheme for teaching Tony, and it was one of Tony's favorite games. His face would light up with delight.

"Six!" he would declare impishly, deliberately giving the wrong answer. When Tony had enough tickling, he would squeal, "EIGHT! Four and four is EIGHT!"

However without warning Tony's games and laughter could turn into a nightmare. One evening Guy accidentally bumped into him, making him angry. Tony grabbed a plate from the table and ran out of the house, slamming the door and cracking the glass. He smashed the plate on the concrete walk and threw an old piece of iron crashing through a window. Although splintered glass lay everywhere, Tony never cut himself. I got him and took him into his room, removed his shirt and made him get into bed. (Tony sometimes ripped up several shirts a month, and I bought them in thrift shops.) Guy and Sherry were trying to help me restrain him. He managed to break loose and kick hole in the wall – just another big gaping hole added to those in every room of our house.

"The things he does look - well - almost psychotic," Guy said in a frightened voice. I felt frightened too. If Tony had no control over his rages, we were all helpless.

"Tony need spanking?" Tony taunted. We did nothing, and he continued, "Go tell Daddy Tony broke a wall."

Ike appeared. Tony grabbed the curtain, pulling the curtain rod out of the wall. Ike pulled down Tony's pants and spanked him, (one of the few times I ever saw Ike spank any of the children.)

"That's what he wants," I said. "It only makes him worse."

"I know," Ike agreed, "but I'm only human."

Tony picked up a chair and tried to hurl it through a window. We wrested it from him. He caught Sherry's long hair and pulled. We forced him back onto the bed.

"We're not going to be able to handle him much longer," Ike warned. "He's getting bigger and stronger every day. Something has to be done."

If Tony lacked free-will no one would be able to cope with him. None of us ever came out and spoke of putting Tony in an institution, but the prospect lurked in all our minds. I felt sick with fear. Strangers would be less able to handle him than we were. People working in institutions wouldn't love Tony. They would only lock him up. Sherry began to cry.

"There's no point in talking about if we can handle Tony," Guy said. "We just have to do it!"

I felt grateful for his support. “If only we had a way to discipline him,” I said. “There's doesn’t seem to be anything we can take away from him as a punishment. And he enjoys fighting like this. I wish there were a hospital where we could put him, just for a few days. It might give him a reason to try to control himself.”

Tony stopped struggling. He sat up in bed with a look of alarm in his eyes. All his frantic activity ceased, and there was a sudden silence.

"Tony be good boy," he promised meekly.

We stared at him in disbelief. My knees felt weak and I sat down on the bed with a laugh of relief. Tony wasn't possessed by some mysterious, uncontrollable, psychotic rage! Maybe we did have a way to motivate him. ‘Hospital’ may have been the only word of my sentence that Tony heard, and ever since Tony had his teeth fixed, he feared hospitals. For several years we used that fear. He had his next tantrum while in the car, and tried to kick out the windshield. I turned the car around and drove toward the hospital, telling Tony where we were going. Tony stopped kicking at the windshield and sat up in his seat. He pleaded with me to turn back, promising to be a good boy. We reached the hospital. We drove slowly by the emergency entrance, and Tony cried,

"Oh no, Tony's going to get a little new baby. No! No! Tony doesn't want a baby."

I couldn't resist laughing, which only increased Tony's alarm. I took him home. A few days later Tony again declared he didn't want a baby, apparently still worrying about how dangerously close he had been to acquiring one.

"Boys and men don't get babies," I said, "just ladies."

"And Rin-Tin-Tin?"


"You know - Tippy Toes."

"Oh," I said with a laugh, "you mean Tiny Tim."

A newscaster had announced that Tiny Tim, a television comedian who sang Tip Toe Through the Tulips in a falsetto voice, would become a father. Apparently no one had made it clear that Tiny Tim's wife, Miss Vickie, would have the baby. Like Sherry, Tony had observed our friend arriving home from the hospital with a new baby, but Tony had a different reaction than his sister. Tony wasn't looking forward to a baby of his own, and had no interest in the little bracelet on its wrist. (I don't remember anyone discussing Rin Tin Tin around Tony. Many people are convinced autistic children have some ability to read minds, and perhaps he read the name, Rin Tin Tin, in someone else's mind. It does show Tony’s crude comprehension of spoken language.)

Tony behaved for a while, but about a year later he threw rocks and broke windows at school. I warned him doctors had an injection to cure boys of throwing rocks, and if he threw any more I'd have him inoculated. Terrified of shots, Tony behaved for a few weeks. Then one day someone phoned from school to say Tony had gone on a rampage, smashing all the dishes in the school kitchen. I drove to school and got him. Tony didn't plead with me not to take him to the hospital. He seemed to realize the seriousness of his behavior and appeared resigned to endure the consequences. When we got home, I told him to pack his suitcase - just in case the injection didn't work. Doctors might decide surgery was necessary, I added.

As we drove to the hospital, I kept waiting for Tony to beg me to turn back. He remained solemnly silent. We drove by the emergency entrance. Unless he begged to go home, Tony was about to learn we had been bluffing for the past two years. Without this threat to control him, whatever could we do? I parked the car, and we walked slowly into the emergency room. Tony was carrying his suitcase and seemed courageously prepared to undergo his treatment. I glanced desperately around the room and saw two nurses. They didn't seem busy. They looked at me inquiringly, waiting for me to explain what I wanted. There had been a time when making foolish requests would have been more difficult for me, but Tony’s antics had somewhat inured me against caring what people thought.

"We want one of those inoculations to cure boys of breaking dishes and throwing rocks," I finally requested, as I held up an index finger and winked frantically. At the same time I attempted what I hoped was a pleading expression on my face. The nurses stared at me - and at Tony, stoically carrying his suitcase. Finally a look of comprehension flooded across the face of the older nurse. That wonderful, compassionate, understanding woman took Tony's hand and pricked his finger, producing a drop of blood.

Tony screamed in agony.

It was a powerful injection, curing him of throwing rocks for several years.


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The original images may be found on this pdf copy of the book.

Current page: Does free-will exist?

  1. Wouldn’t volition be an essential aspect of creativity?
  2. Could an inherently creative universe, a living universe, ever be defined by mathematical formulas?
  3. How did the laws of nature originate?
  4. Are some scientific concepts too sacred to be debated?
  5. Are intelligence and creativity two separate and distinct processes?
  6. Are psychoanalytic theories profound? Or just convoluted?
  7. If purposeful creativity exists as an aspect of reality, why should we assume it is a process unique to human consciousness?
  8. Can the value of scientific knowledge ever justify enrolling people in research projects without their knowledge or consent?
  9. Exactly what technical knowledge enables psychiatrists to manipulate ids, egos and psyches?
  10. Should "normal" be equated with average?
  11. What technical knowledge enables psychologists to declare people emotionally abnormal?
  12. Are psychologists able to scientifically measure parental love? Or its lack?
  13. Is the universe, including life, an automatic, mechanical process, driven by nothing but the laws of physics and chemistry (the materialist position)? Or do other forces play a role, such as mind, consciousness, judgment and volition - most of which we presently have only have limited understanding?
  14. Should doctors and scientists refrain from expressing skepticism about theories of colleagues in other fields?
  15. Do people generally choose the challenges which force them to grow?
  16. How can we claim to scientifically manipulate thoughts and emotions if we don't even understand how such elusive phenomena relate to physical reality?
  17. What is faith? If belief that God organized the universe is a matter of faith, why isn't the materialist belief that the universe came together by some accidental, mechanical process also a matter of faith? (Or, the Buddhist belief in self-organization.)
  18. Are living creatures constantly evolving as they strive to grow and adapt? Or must evolutionary adaptations passively wait around for a random mutation to accidentally pop up in someone's genome?
  19. Should we have official committees to define scientific knowledge? Or is an ever-changing, constantly-challenged, general consensus our best way to keep our understanding of reality vibrant?
  20. Could lying on a couch and obsessing over a traumatic childhood ever be therapeutic?
  21. Would it even be possible to conduct a scientific study to determine whether psychological treatments are effective?
  22. What is racism?
  23. Does free-will exist?
  24. Would obsessing over a traumatic event ever cure any mental illness?
  25. Could a creative intelligence be an innate aspect of all Nature?
  26. What would define economic theories as materialistic or non-materialistic?
  27. Is intolerance often the result of personal insecurity?
  28. Consciousness and free-will may be defining characteristics of all life, but do we have much understanding of what they actually are?
  29. Can we do other people's growing for them?
  30. Are Western democracies civilization’s ultimate achievement?
  31. Which would produce the most psychologically stunted individuals? Being emotionally challenged? Or never encountering any challenges?
  32. Could the purpose of life be to participate in the growth of the universe?
  33. Can science investigate and attempt to describe a non-materialistic version of the universe?
Current page: Does free-will exist?