Perhaps you saw the spectacular launch pad explosion of Elon Musk’s rocket this week. That is nothing compared to the failure to launch of the entire excessive-vaccination generation. (I adopt that term from Bernie Rimland, who said – and it always bears repeating – that “the autism epidemic is real and excessive vaccinations are the cause.”)
Recently an autism dad suggested to me that kids started having trouble with ADD and ADHD in the 1970s, well before the 1988 spike in autism that defines the epidemic. That could track to the introduction of the MMR and various other adjustments to the vaccine schedule and increases in coverage. And that would give us people like Michael Phelps – born 1985 – who has talked openly about having ADHD. It’s possible some of his substance issues could be self-medication. (This appeared to be the year when Olympians with Issues became the headline. Crohn’s disease, asthmatics – where did this infirmary full of world-class athletes come from? I don’t remember it a decade or two ago.)
Of course, Phelps is an awesome success story by any standard, but especially the standards set by pop culture presentations of young adults these days. One that’s on the airwaves now is for a credit-score company: the impetus for tracking your credit is the ongoing nightmare of living with mom and dad. Two or three amusing vignettes – dad wearing the same shirt to try to be cool, or playing some dopey game – make clear that living with your parents is a drag, man. It finally dawned on me this was one of the first ads I’d seen from a millennial perspective. Rather than the irritation of having grown kids at home – that would be my generation’s complaint -- it was the irritation of having stupid parents in your space, even if it is technically their space!
Also this week, I was flipping through my new edition of Tricycle, a Buddhist magazine, and from a less materialistic perspective picked up the same vibe.
“My students seem burdened,” said Jeff Wilson, an associate professor of religious studies at Renison State University in Canada. “People seem really afraid – we probably all know statistics around antidepressant use and anxiety and depression. I think it’s coming from the dissipation of family and connection with others. It just seems really hard to sustain that in the kind of society we have.”
Oh, pish posh. I wish that people who make useful observations would pause for just one moment before offering mere speculation as to the cause. I just don’t think there is justification for this kind of anomie, some breakdown in our families and society to the point that young people just can’t get it together.
It was no picnic in 1968, let me tell you. Yet today things are so fraught, apparently, that trigger warnings and safe spaces and micro-aggressions are the order of the day. (One is tempted to say, if you want a safe space, go back to your parents’ basement.) It was nice to see the University of Chicago push back in a letter to students this week. My own alma mater, Yale, was the scene of great pusillanimity kicked off by a dean’s wife harmless suggestion that nobody get too riled up by potentially offensive Halloween costumes. I don’t mean to minimize this generation’s own set of issues, nor the need to deal with historical grievances that ours may have never considered. Many will disagree, but I thought Georgetown’s offer this week to give preferential admission to descendants of slaves it had owned (and sold to keep in business) was terrific. There are problems to be dealt with but that does not explain or justify a generation of kids with sawed-off ambitions and crippling apathy who can’t seem to get out of their parents’ basements. I remember staying at home for three or four days right out of college until I moved in with a couple of friends. We were not living large, but it seemed that way because, hallelujah, we were on our own. (And then, a few months later, I moved into my own tiny attic apartment and bought a Sherwood receiver, a Dual Turntable and a pair of Dynaco speakers that I still have and put on a record that was just out -- Blood on the Tracks. Tangled Up in Blue's astonishing instrumental opening came pouring out like warm honey and gave the system a worthy baptism. I digress but being on your own is good!)
There’s nothing heroic about this, it is what people do and have done really for millennia -- a biologic imperative of youth to stand up, strike out on their own, show they can do it better and create their own life. The universe throws in some extra hormones or whatever to push us all out of the nest without a crippling fear of falling. Except, apparently, these days.
One of my favorite quotes is by Lightner Witmer, a Philadelphia psychologist, describing a possible early case of autism:
“As the flower blooms, the fish swims or the bird flies, so the child crawls, walks and talks. It is the unfolding of his own instinctive impulses. But this child had to be taught to crawl and to walk, and even then he could only toddle around uncertainly. He never uttered a word spontaneously.”
This unfolding naturally continues into adolescence and early adulthood – or it ought to. But we shouldn’t be surprised it doesn’t when we have 1 in 6 kids with learning disabilities, 1 in 68 with autism, more than half with some kind of mental or physical health issue. That’s a lot of kids! Yet when these kids continue to have “delays” into adulthood, we seem to ignore this reality of cause and effect. Saying a three-year-old is delayed is one thing, but a 20-year-old who delays taking on the natural responsibilities and advantages of his age is something else. Or is it? Are we going to be talking about “delays” in 80-year-olds? At some point delay becomes denial of a person’s right to live a full and unburdened life.
It’s what Bernie Rimland called Dyslogic Syndrome in a book by that title available on Amazon. The subtitle says it all: Why Millions of Kids are ‘Hyper,’ Attention-Disordered, Learning Disabled, Depressed, Aggressive, Defiant, or Violent – and What We Can Do About It. This overlooked gem from 2008 – a kind of bookend to his classic Infantile Autism in 1964 – describes the generation now in their late teens and early adulthood.
If you get a generation whose members were delayed in infancy, should we be surprised they remain delayed in everything from leaving home to adjusting to the rough and tumble of what used to be called “the real world,” still "toddling around uncertainly" like the child Witmer described? Speaking of the real world, I'm reliably informed that another reality show, Big Brother, currently has three contestants well into their 20s who still live with their parents. We should stop grabbing for silly explanations and come to grips, like Georgetown with its egregious slave history, with what we have wrought.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism.