Have you ever looked at a person with mental or learning disabilities and wondered why we were blessed to be born normal and they were not?
I used to.
It comes as no surprise that in college, the subject of literature utterly fascinated me and captured my imagination. What may not be as obvious, however, is that my fascination with the subjects of human growth and development and psychology was equally unrivaled. Discovering why people were able to learn and why they were able to relate to certain concepts and constructs in our culture resonated with me at a juncture in my life when I began to question the norms and values in my own culture.
When I took Psychology 101 during my freshman year of college, I wrote my term paper on the subject linking autism to savant syndrome. What I discovered along the way was quite interesting to say the least. Savants, to my understanding, are able to perform great mental feats like detailed sketching from brief memory, perfect playback of music heard only once, and a computer-like mind for math among countless other things even though they were classified as mentally disabled.
The studies, so I read, went even further. Laboratory experiments were performed on “normal” subjects in which a certain part of the brain is temporarily disabled, and were administered tests both before and after electrostatic treatment. With a portion of the brain disabled, test subjects were able to perform at savant-like levels.
A few years ago, I had the privilege to work with someone who is legally classified as “disabled”. From an early age, people were willing to doom him to a life of an invalid, yet he was able to grow, develop, hold down a job, get a driver’s license, learn to read and write, and take up hobbies. And yet, he still lacked confidence in certain areas because of the “disabled” label attached to him. Understanding his dilemma, I told him, “It’s not that you can’t learn to do things, it’s that you must learn them differently than other people.”
And that’s what kick-started my fascination all over again.
We learn differently. Sure, the school system wants to make us learn the same way and on the same time table as everyone else and label us as “broken” when its plans go awry, but when all is said and done, we all learn differently and this can’t be dictated away. Savants can do the things they do because they’ve never been told that they can’t. “Can’t” doesn’t even exist to them, and it never will.
The “normal” human brain doesn’t remember raw information. When a baby’s mind develops, it learns how to break down and sort information as routines and abstract concepts made concrete constructs. What this simply means is that when we take in the world around us, information goes in and gets sorted. The “important” stuff goes in and the “junk” goes out. Savants can’t do this. They see the world exactly how it is, and because of this, they have trouble fitting in socially.
But is it really worth blinding ourselves so we can make small talk at the local coffee shop? And on that subject, what is the definition of normal, anyway?
The sad reality is that labels do not apply only to severe mental retardation, but to all walks of life as well. We’ve all heard the terms “ADHD”, “Dyslexic”, “learning disorder” and “Hyperactive”, and they all denote something negative. Why should we not use them when needed? Well, we’ve also heard the terms “Brainiac”, “Egghead”, “Geek”, and “Nerd”, and they describe the same exact thing: a pattern of behavior or character traits, not necessarily destructive, that are considered undesirable to the social norms of our society. To the former group, we drug them and tear them down until they are model members of school society. To the latter, we take away their creativity and push them as hard as we possibly can until they hate themselves and what they represent. Now, I’m not saying that there aren’t very real problems, don’t get me wrong. All I’m saying is that the “epidemic” is grossly exaggerated and misnamed.
We want our children to be happy and successful. We want our children to change the world and have the courage to lay claim to everything meant for them, to have everything that we didn’t have ourselves. How can they, though, when we explicitly tell them throughout their entire lives that there’s something wrong with them? In fact, why do we tell them they’re defective when before they were formed, God knew them and before they were born they were sanctified by God? (Jeremiah 1:5) Why do we condemn child-like (not childish) tendencies when “Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein.” – (Luke 18:17)
Perhaps, then, the epidemic isn’t medical, but spiritual.
Given all the evidence collected, the mentally disabled are not the people who can’t seem to grasp basic social constructs or fit in with the masses without awkwardness. Maybe the mentally disabled are, instead, the people whose identities are so wrapped up in being socially acceptable, that they are willing to dumb down their own understanding and sell out their birthright just to fit in and plug into the world’s system. “Oh thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?” says Jesus after Peter begins to sink when his eyes are taken from his love and put upon his fears. (Matthew 14:31) The choking of faith by social acceptance is, by Biblical definition, real mental disability.
In the past few months, I’ve met someone else who is classified as mentally disabled. Though he is older than me, I am mentally more mature than him. Whenever he goes anywhere that has rows of vending machines, he has already accepted it as truth that he will find several dollars worth of change in the coin slots, and amazingly he usually does. No, he’s never become wealthy from this, but given his scope and understanding of monetary gain, he is perfectly happy.
Meanwhile, the rest of us are struggling in misery to keep our head above the poverty line.