Elvis and Autism

23 Jul

I was just hanging out at home, relaxing on the couch. The Encore channel was on in the background showing an Elvis and Mary Tyler Moore movie, Change of Habit. When all of a sudden, I heard the key word “autistic”.

Elvis plays a doctor in this movie, with Mary Tyler Moore as his assistant. A little girl is brought in to treat her deafness. After hearing of the little girl’s history of abandonment, Mary’s character suggests the girl is not deaf, but actually autistic. She states: “Sometimes when a child is rejected very early in life they crawl inside themselves and shut out the whole world, as if they’re trying to punish the rest of us, along with themselves.”

After trying to turn the girl’s head towards her, she goes on to say, “You see how she resists any physical contact? It’s typical of autistic frustration.”

Elvis suggests a new treatment, “Rage reduction” while Mary asserts, “I’d rather try patience and love.”

After failing to build compliance with the patient on a shape sorting task, Elvis steps in and performs “rage reduction”; a technique in which he holds the girl while she screams, and cries, and flails to try to get away. He scoops her up and says, “You gotta learn to start lovin’ people. I’m gonna hold you ‘till you get rid of all your hate. Get as mad as you can. You can start to give love and take love.”

As she continues to tantrum, Elvis tells her, “I love you, Amanda. Get as mad as you can get. Show us how mad you can get. Fight! You can do better than that for someone that loves you. That’s a girl! Get mad. We love you.”

After enduring several hours of this procedure, she eventually speaks her first word “mad” and is magically cured!! She becomes compliant, giving perfect eye contact, responds to her name, and even enjoys physical contact with others. Her “hatred” is gone.

So…what to make of all this…

Well for starters, it’s an amazing snapshot of the myths and misconceptions people had about autism in the late 1960s. People were so misinformed, and autism was so misunderstood. The disorder was blamed on neglectful or unloving parents. The treatment revolved around freeing the frustrated child of their hate and anger. And this movie suggests a cure exists. Just hold your child until they can fight no more, and all of the sudden they will be happy and compliant children!

For me, watching it was equally astonishing and interesting, not to mention kind of humorous. (Could people have really believed this stuff?!) How awful for parent’s raising autistic children in this era! It was uncommon and un-researched. How judged parents must have felt. How many ethical dilemmas they must have faced when deciding on treatment for their kids. It’s shocking how we used to think about autism. It’s amazing how far we’ve come in understanding this disorder. While at the same time, I realize how much we still don’t know.


One Response to “Elvis and Autism”

  1. TwinkieMom2002 August 17, 2012 at 4:19 pm #

    I honestly don’t know if I could stomach watching this movie. :-/

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