Academic journal article English Journal

Who's Normal Here? an Atypical's Perspective on Mental Health and Educational Inclusion

Academic journal article English Journal

Who's Normal Here? an Atypical's Perspective on Mental Health and Educational Inclusion

Article excerpt

The key deficit found in children and adolescents with Asperger's Syndrome (AS) is their lack of social skills. They do not know or use the basic social skills that come more naturally to other people (Krasney et al., 2003). They often do not have a full appreciation of the social "rules" of interaction. . . . AS is a psychological disorder that falls under the umbrella of autism spectrum disorders. . . . The deficits that these children show are thought of as falling on a broad continuum. (Painter 13)

This description of Asperger's syndrome is characteristic of the ways in which people with atypical neurological makeups are described in both psychiatric and mainstream publications and conversations. It is based on the view that there is a psychological norm, and that those who deviate from it are in "deficit" to "normal" people.

I would like to challenge this assumption, based on my own experiences as one who has raised a child who has been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, Tourette's syndrome, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, chronic anxiety, and oppositional-defiance disorder (see Smagorinsky, "Confessions," "Every Individual"). Through this process I have come to the realization that my own gene pool has likely produced a good part of this makeup in my daughter. As Tim Page notes, many adults come to a recognition of their own place along the mental health continuum when their children get diagnosed for what are known as mental illnesses. My pathway of realization has followed this route, and not always easily. I will talk about both my own experiences and those of my friends and loved ones as a way to think about what it means to be considered mentally ill in a world where some notion of normalcy prevails. In this world, those with power-in this case, the psychiatric community and those who act on their judgments of abnormality-often stigmatize those from outside the normal range by treating them as "disordered."

Ultimately, I have come to view mental health as a critical area of multicultural education. Multicultural and diversity education tend to be concerned with differences across race, ethnicity, social class, gender, and other familiar categories because often such categories are used to justify discriminatory behavior. Given the fact that people from outside the diagnostic mental health norm are believed to be in deficit, to be disordered, to be lacking "natural" social skills-even by those such as Kim Kiker Painter who consider themselves part of the solution rather than part of the problem-it seems that mental health variation meets every criterion for consideration as a multicultural education category. Given the fact that young people sometimes act out violently for the treatment they endure for being different-from taking their own lives to lashing out at others (Mental Health America)-there appears to be nothing short of an imperative to integrate mental health considerations into any inclusive effort in education.

Taking the Romance Out of Mental Health Difference

While arguing for a broader notion of normalcy, I do not wish to suggest that I have an unrealistic or romantic view of those outside the normal range. In another essay (Smagorinsky, "Confessions"), I discuss at length the event that prompted my own recognition of my neuroatypical makeup. My crisis occurred during a talk I tried to give at the 1999 NCTE Annual Convention in Denver, at which I was forced to walk out after only a few minutes because I experienced a sudden, terrifying, and disabling panic attack. This experience, it turned out, was a function of chronic anxiety of the sort that is also evident in my long-time fear of flying and agitation within closed spaces generally (e.g., being inside a room with the door shut). I have always been anxious; I have gnawed and picked at my fingernails, for instance, throughout my life, often to the amazement of those around me who cannot imagine that there is anything leftto masticate. …

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