Recently, my husband and I flew on Thursday to Phoenix, where he spoke for a Dave Ramsey sponsored Business Boutique event on Friday and for a local synagogue on Shabbat.
Not until the next day did we read of massive TSA lines in Chicago and of 3,000 bags that missed outgoing flights from the Phoenix airport due to TSA incompetence. In contrast, our TSA lines moved swiftly and it was the airline itself rather than TSA that behaved incompetently, consistently announcing an on-time departure despite the fact that anyone looking out of the terminal could see that there was no airplane on the tarmac. Eventually, they changed the departure time on the announcement board — to an hour after the flight actually left. Nonetheless, we were grateful to arrive safely at our destination and to meet our luggage there.
Shortly before this trip, I read an amazing book, In a Different Key: The Story of Autism. I ordered the book at my library, having read a review of it. That was a good move, as had I seen it on the shelf I think I would have walked past, expecting it by its size to be interminable and dry. It was anything but. The book is fast-paced and reads almost like a mystery story leaving you eager to find out what happens next.
What in the world does airline travel have to do with the lessons of autism’s history? The modern story of autism goes back only a few decades and the guru of the movement for a long time was Dr. Bruno Bettelheim. His credentials? Actually, he didn’t have any. Neither his degree from an Austrian university in art history nor his adulation of Freud equipped him to direct the lives of thousands of families facing serious difficulties. Dr. Bettelheim concocted the idea of the ‘refrigerator mom.’ In other words, a lack of maternal love led to autism. This may have been a slight advance over the culture of the day that would institutionalize the most severe cases and encourage parents to forget they ever had such a child, but it caused unnecessary anguish and his misguided ‘treatments’ were ineffectual.
What changed? What challenged the idolization of the non-medical doctor whose advice was followed by most physicians? Parents. Parents who were able to look past the cult of the expert and knew that their understandable exhaustion and frustration at dealing with their children did not mean a lack of love and that they certainly didn’t cause the autistic behaviors. In effect, a parental revolt led by a small number of parents overturned academia at a time when doctors were held in high esteem. Physicians played the part of the mindless crowd of The Emperor’s New Clothes, while mothers and fathers acted the part of the little boy who could see the truth.
I do recommend reading the book, but I also see an optimistic parallel for the potential for a revolt by average, normal flyers to the TSA morass. In many ways, the TSA debacle, begun by a Republican president as a reaction to a real and present danger and inevitably morphing into an expensive, failing bureaucracy, represents the entire government structure. Both Trump and Sanders’ popularity came from a revolt against the ‘experts’ and insiders of the Republican and Democrat parties who populate that behemoth. Just as in the battle to understand autism, not every defiant step is an advance. The battle can be messy and get sidetracked in negative ways. However, a growing coalition of people who may vehemently disagree with each other, agree that the status quo is destructive. No matter what happens in November, they can force an unresponsive, arrogant ruling class, whether in politics or medicine, to change course.