On a book about autism

The baby came outside under his own steam for the first time yesterday, crawling over the doorstep out into the pale sunshine, blinking hard. I was planting primroses and he crawled into the flowerbed and sat up between my legs, looking as ever like a miniaturised Mark Lawson - that round, bald bloke who presents Newsnight review. He waved his arms
largely, as if encouraging me to favour the television audience with my most rabid views on the latest cinema release, and adding something incomprehensible in baby language, he picked up a handful of black loamy soil and shoved it into his mouth.

Because I am his mother and prone to swallowing the potty ideas which I read in the Sunday papers, I let him have some. This is part of my personal anti-asthma campaign, which also involves letting him grab the organic potatoes out of the bottom of the
vegetable rack and suck them. Immunologists believe that asthma and some of the other inexplicable immune disorders which are afflicting our children may be the price we pay for eliminating mud from children’s lives. Mud may be the key to helping their immune systems to develop normally.

So I let the baby eat a bit of dirt because my older son has asthma. He had four serious attacks last year and if he does that again he may have to start on a daily dose of steroids in an attempt to control the condition. Why does he have it? I don’t know. Maybe he was bathed too often, maybe it was because the winter he developed it was the winter he
went into child care and every morning for months he howled to the point of breath-catching hysteria when I left him in the baby room. It seemed the right thing to do at the time, but now I’m not so sure. Have you ever seen a baby room, where an 18-year-old is trying to keep three quiet, holding two in her arms while she rocks a third with her foot. Is
that good for babies? Could it be damaging to their physical and mental health? Who
really knows?

The point is that raising children now is not what it was in the past. We know more and yet we somehow contrive to know less. Each new solution seems to create a problem. We have hygiene, we have working-parents nurseries where children do not spend their days in the strong intimate relationship which would once have been the norm. And, indeed, this deep and loving relationship which we place so little emphasis on may be the
key to understanding the human mind. Psychoanalyst Peter Hobson has written a controversial new book, The Cradle of Thought, in which he explores the idea that feelings are the basis of all thought, of all understanding, and are the beginning of language.

Hobson compares the behaviour of autistic and normal children to illustrate his belief that the entrance into language and, indeed, the ability to think and to organise thoughts, rests squarely on the early emotional relationships the baby forms. It is because the autistic child has no insight into the mind of his mother or carer that he cannot speak. He cannot connect. If confronted by a potentially frightening toy, he does not, like other children turn to his mother for reassurance. He does not gaze into his mother’s eyes or burble
conversationally to her.

He does not point or make requests or seem to understand if someone hurts themselves or is sad or happy. He is barely conscious of other people’s feelings. Normal babies are born searching for their mother’s face: within an hour of birth they can copy expressions such as sticking the tongue out or making sounds. Their emotional lives start at the moment of birth and everything that happens in them is profoundly important. Hobson shows that the children of secure mothers who listen to them and gently encourage them have better social skills at eight weeks than children whose mothers are less

He has found that a high percentage of congenitally blind children show a form of autism, but in many it is reversible and they become more able to enter into the minds of others and therefore into language as they grow older. Children from Romanian orphanages who have been deprived of love and social contact also tend to show a high incidence of autism. Hobson is not implying that most autistic children are that way because they have been deprived of love or intimacy.

He doesn’t know what causes the condition. But he makes clear how much the baby can and should be an equal partner in social interaction from the first minutes after birth when he or she gazes into his mother’s eyes. Some babies just don’t do that. They are different. In a passage that might offend some parents, he compares the emotional understanding of autistic children to that of chimpanzees and concludes that chimpanzees have rich social lives which autistic children in most cases are not capable of: ”In certain respects chimpanzees appear to more affected by others’ expression of emotion than are children with autism.” It’s fascinating stuff.

But he can’t answer the big question, why. And just as I can’t help but wonder why if it is my fault my son has asthma when no-one in our family has ever suffered from it before, I’m sure parents up and down the land wonder why autism has exiled their little one to an
island with no bridges. And they will continue to try to build bridges of love into those strange, locked hearts and minds.

The Cradle of Thought by Peter Hobson is published by Macmillan next week.

The Scottish Herald
February 20th 2002