Stigma and Mental Illness

By David Trend

“The more I became immersed in the study of stigmatized mental illness, the more it astonishing to me that any such phenomenon should exist at all,” writes Robert Lundin, a member of the Chicago Consortium for Stigma Research. “I believe that serious and persistent mental illnesses, like the one I live with, are clearly an inexorably no-fault phenomena that fully warrant being treated with the same gentleness and respect as multiple-sclerosis, testicular cancer or sickle-cell anemia.”[i] Here Lundin names a central of problem in the social construction of mental illness: the misunderstanding of conditions affecting the mind as somehow different from other biological illness. The misrecognition renders mental illness prone to the judgmental attributions discussed by Susan Sontag in her 1973 book Illness as Metaphor.  To Sontag, contemporary society reverses ancient views of sickness as a reflection of the inner self.  In this new view, the inner self is seen as actively causing sickness––through smoking, overeating, addictive behavior, and bad habits: “The romantic idea that disease expresses the character is invariably extended to exert that the character causes the disease–because it is not expressed itself. Passion moves inward, striking within the deepest cellular recesses.”[ii] But as before, the sick person is to blame for the illness.

Such sentiments are especially vindictive when a mentally ill person commits a crime. Understandably perhaps, clinical terms like “mental illness” quickly acquire malevolent meanings in the public mind––even though the mentally ill statistically are no more prone to criminality than anyone else. Sometimes this semiotic slippage causes public panic over commonplace disorders. Consider the case of Adam Lanza, the young man who in 2013 shot 26 children and adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Massachusetts. While mental health analysts speculate that an acute psychotic episode prompted his violence, Lanza never had been diagnosed with a serious mental illness. As reporters scrambled for a story, much was made of Lanza’s childhood symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism. The repeated mention of this disorder in news coverage triggered wrong-headed fears nationally of the murderous potential in other autistic kids. According the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), approximately 1 in 50 people (1.5-million) fall somewhere on the autistic spectrum, 80 percent of whom are boys.[iii] This has prompted improved diagnostic measures, which in turn have resulted in an apparent rise in autism cases in recent years––up 78 percent from a decade ago––and made autism a source of acute anxiety for many new parents. Continue reading “Stigma and Mental Illness”

Gender and autism

A study has claimed that autism affects different parts of the brain depending on gender, reports The Metro

“Scientists looked at 120 brains of both sexes, including those without the disability, concluding that not ‘everything found in males with autism applies to females’.imgres-1

“Using MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans, the research revealed how ‘females with autism show neuroanatomical “masculinisation”,’ said Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, senior author of the paper.

“Shedding light on a previously under-researched area – women with autism – the scientists, from the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University, found that the anatomy of the brain of someone with autism varied between men and women. Baron-Cohen said that the ‘masculinisation’ of a female brain with autism may ‘implicate physiological mechanisms that drive sexual dimorphism, such as prenatal sex hormones and sex-linked genetic mechanisms’. While autism affects one per cent of the general population, it is more prevalent in men. Because of this, most studies have concentrated on male-dominant samples leading to a gender bias in the understanding of autism-related neuroscience.

‘”This is one of the largest brain imaging studies of sex/gender differences yet conducted in autism. Females with autism have long been under-recognized and probably misunderstood,’ said Dr Meng-Chuan Lai, the research project leader. ‘The findings suggest that we should not blindly assume that everything found in males with autism applies to females.’ The paper, entitled ‘Biological sex affects the neurobiology of autism’, appears in the journal Brain.”

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The radio of “Lifestyles of the Disabled”

The participants at “Lifestyles for the Disabled” do not exactly seem like naturals as radio personalities.

There is Anthony Cossentino, 29, a huge “Jeopardy” fan who for years has been arriving at Lifestyles, a daytime occupational program on Staten Island for developmentally delayed adults in their 20s and 30s, every morning with a self-written question of the day, to pose to anyone who will listen,reports the New York Times.images

“Or take Michael Halbreich, 32, who has an uncanny ability to remember the birthday of anyone he meets, and to instantly name the day of the week that any date in history fell on.

“He has yet to get one wrong,” said Burak Uzun, a staff supervisor who runs the media program at Lifestyles, which offers vocational, social, recreational and educational services geared toward independent living.And then there’s Anthony DiFato, 22, who is well known at Lifestyles for his obsession with mystery novels, films and television shows. He is known as the Mystery Man because he is never without a whodunit book.

“Ever since I was a kid, I was always into mysteries,” Mr. DiFato said at Lifestyles one recent weekday while holding a paperback copy of a book in the Mrs. Jeffries mystery series by Emily Brightwell. But these quirky skills and interests can make for good radio. Just over two years ago, Mr. Uzun, along with another staff member, Joel Richardson, began recruiting participants at Lifestyles with varying degrees of autism to record brief talk show segments on a laptop. The segments were posted online as podcasts, mostly for friends and relatives of participants and staff members to listen to.

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Virtual autism with Auti-Sim

Games-for-Change has reported on a new game that simulates the experience of autism: “I had barely made it to the center of Auti-Sim’s world—a playground filled with children—before ripping off my headphones and pushing away from the computer.images-1

“Not because it was a bad game. Just the opposite. Because it’s so effective in its aim to simulate the unbearable sensory overload that is associated with some cases of autism.

“Auti-Sim, an experimental prototype designed to simulate what it’s like to have autism as a child, inundates players with increasingly intense, indistinguishable sounds as the game’s visuals continue to blur.

“It was created by a three-person team at the Hacking Health Vancouver 2013 game jam. Taylan Kadayifcioglu, pitched the original idea at the 48-hour event, and handled programming and game design. Matt Marshall designed the playground level and the project logo. Krista Howarth, an early childhood educator specializing in working with kids with autism, advised Kadayifcioglu and Marshall on autism. Continue reading “Virtual autism with Auti-Sim”

Airline pilots use iPads, not disabled passengers

imgres-2All American Airlines pilots are permitted to use iPads as they fly.

In the interest of safety on a recent American Airlines flight, an attendant required a non-verbal teenager to put away the iPad she relies upon to speak.

News of the incident –  and the irony – has created an uproar on the internet and considerable acrimony over the airline’s policies.

Carly Fleischmann, a 17-year-old with autism from Toronto, lambasted American Airlines on her  Facebook page earlier this week.
“On her way home from Los Angeles last Friday, Fleischmann said that a flight attendant told her to put away the tablet for takeoff and landing and was unwilling to bend even after Fleischmann’s aide explained that it was a communication device,” reports DisabilityScoop , Continue reading “Airline pilots use iPads, not disabled passengers”

Autism means reduced health care access

Autism is in the media spotlight these days, but for all the wrong reasons. Despite the absence of any causal connection between autistic spectrum diagnoses and propensities for violence, worries abound nevertheless following the Sandy Hook shootings. 6.57_AUTISM-CURE-PUZZLEMeanwhile, children and adults with some form of autism become the subject of greater stigma – and their odds of receiving adequate care diminishes further. Autism already is highly misunderstood in terms of its origins, causes, manifestations, and treatment. Continue reading “Autism means reduced health care access”

Autism is not linked to violence

“Among the details to emerge in the aftermath of the Connecticut elementary school massacre was the possibility that the gunman had some form of autism,” reports todays Los Angeles Times

“Adam Lanza, 20, had a personality disorder or autism, his brother reportedly told police. Former classmates described him as socially awkward, friendless and painfully shy.

“While those are all traits of autism, a propensity for premeditated violence is not. Several experts said that at most, autism would have played a tangential role in the mass shooting — if Lanza had it at all. ’Many significant psychiatric disorders involve social isolation,’ said Catherine Lord, director of the Center for Autism and the Developing Brain at New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

Autism, she said, has become a catch-all term to describe anybody who is awkward. Some type of schizophrenia, delusional disorder or psychotic break would more clearly fit the crime, experts said. Continue reading “Autism is not linked to violence”

Temper tantrums mean the child is crazy

Anyone paying attention knows that the forthcoming DSM-5 guide book for psychiatrists been getting plenty of advance criticism.

Because this medical volume influences very non-medical factors like insurance coverage and definitions of mental “health,” exactly who gets classified and in what manner can have huge material and social consequences.  The new DSM will redraw the lines on conditions ranging from autism to transgender identity. As Slate reports today, yet another diagnosis is drawing fire:

“Nothing burns the critics worse than “Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder,” a new diagnosis for kids 6 to 18 years old who three or more times a week have “temper outbursts that are grossly out or proportion in intensity or duration to the situation.” It actually started out as “temper dysregulation disorder with dysphoria” (tantrums, plus you feel bad) but got changed so as not to openly malign tantrums. But the diagnosis still focuses on them, and critics say it is Continue reading “Temper tantrums mean the child is crazy”