Clue processing disorder

Old-school parenting expert John Rosemond takes on the newfangled neurological diagnosis “Sensory Processing Disorder” in this week’s column. Rosemond, who is generally against the trend to turn every little behavioral inconvenience into an acronymed medical condition, reports on a child who was officially diagnosed with this disorder because, in part, she didn’t like her underpants. The good doctor instead diagnosed a case of ‘defiance’, and prescribed a fuss- and distraction-free bedroom environment in which the child was required to stay until she was dressed in whatever she wanted to wear.

Two weeks later, I received the following email from Mom: ‘The very first morning, (daughter) reminded us to remove her sleep toys so she could get dressed. She then put on underwear and clothes and came out for breakfast. She has done this with no tantrums or requests for help since we began two weeks ago.’

At this writing, it’s been five weeks since this little girl complained of her clothes not feeling right.

Like Rosemond, I am neither qualified nor prepared to pronounce definitively on the existence of a neurological disorder in sensory processing. Just as I have only personal observation, anecdata and cherry-picked social-psychological theory with which to doubt the neurological foundations of many cases of ‘attention deficit disorder’. It is my general impression that all but the extreme fringes of the survivable human input-output spectrum respond adequately to well-modulated social interaction (that’s what they’re built for, after all) and learned behavior. I do however think that there’s a certain practical value to the current trend of medical diagnoses, since they offer access to some very powerful social experiences.

In any event, what struck me about the little girl’s story was how familiar it was. Distraction-proofing the work environment, putting her in charge of her own process, while creating performance accountability, is exactly how I finally got my dissertation done after several years of fairly creative stalling. It’s also how I get stacks of student papers graded nowadays.

This is also a pretty good model for education and other independent or independentable performances, I think, which means that in a roundabout way I am agreeing with much of what John Doyle says in his current series of posts on educational reform, e.g. “Stop Paying Professors to Teach.”

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12 Comments

  1. Curmudgeonliness — of course: it’s the common thread I’d been looking for! In our discussion I should have invoked your prior posts on helicopter parenting. Still, teaching is one thing, but therapy? Chasing down the ever-receding essence of the Other takes time, patience, expertise, money…

    I’m sure you’ll forgive me if I tell you that, while on a run this afternoon, your post began transforming itself into a fantasy scenario. It begins with an undergrad, breathless and flushed, running into your office.
    “Professor Dyke, I’m so sorry I missed your final exam today.”
    “What happened, Miss…”
    “Galore. But you may call me Pussy.”
    “Yes, well then, er, Pussy, why did you miss the final?”
    “Well, you see, Professor Dyke, I’ve been having this problem. It’s my clothes. They just don’t… feel right.”
    “Feel right?”
    “Especially my underwear. My Daddy always used to help me, but now that I’m in college I swear I just don’t know what to do…”

  2. Okay, maybe that was a bit inappropriate. I also took note of this remark from Rosemond’s column:

    “there is no known way of determining that certain otherwise normal children’s brains don’t organize sensory data appropriately. Therefore, the above statements from SPDF are completely speculative. Therefore, the existence of SPD is completely speculative.”

    Speculative psychology might fit nicely into the current blogging zeitgeist. I just hope we can get more imaginative than SPD.

  3. Maybe inappropriate, but cracked me up. I had the young woman you imagine in my first discussion seminar as a teaching assistant. She was a tall, curvy blonde. The peekaboo blouses and panty-length miniskirts she wore most days were hand-made for her by her mother. As it turned out she was an innocent, but not at all stupid, and I was able to help her with her writing. My wife, who was my student and student-worker some years before we hooked up, tells me she had no idea I found her physically attractive. Of course I did, but that was not the point of our relationship and I did not make it one.

    I can’t speak for all professors of all sexes and sexualities, but it’s my general thinking that in any situation in which humans congregate there will be a libidinal dimension. We’ll find some of the people there simpatico and some offputting, some stimulating and others repulsive. This seems to me to be part of our ordinary living together. However, this attitude is apparently not universally shared. I remember for example an essay in bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress, an admirable book in many ways, in which if I remember correctly (I loaned my copy to someone I’ll never get it back from) she noted with wonder that her students had physical bodies, and fretted charmingly about the disconnect between the feelings this made her feel and her ideal image of the life of the mind. I suppose a delayed adolescence is better than none at all, even if this means it will be hypertheorized in print.

    I wish I had titled my post ‘speculative psychology disorder’! And thanks for the curmudgeon cred.

  4. Cracked me up, too. Reminded me of a bit of academic folklore I encountered during my first teaching job.

    A young woman shows up in her professor’s office wearing a raincoat.
    “I need an A in this course,” she says, throwing open the coat, under which she is wearing nothing else.
    The professor raises an eyebrow and says….

    “C-minus.”

    But then I stopped to think about it and the questions I posed popped up.

  5. “there is no known way of determining that certain otherwise normal children’s brains don’t organize sensory data appropriately.”

    Actually, there are ways of measuring down to the mV whether someone’s brain organizes sensory data appropriately. There are also plenty of diagnostic tests.

    But, you know, any parent who takes their kid to a neurologist because she’s very young and would rather play with her toys than put on her clothes might have problems of their own that need checking out.

    I’ve known parents to get ADD diagnoses for their healthy kids on purpose so these kids can get “disability” status. This gives them longer on the SATs and plenty of extra time/leeway college…I often think the problem lies more with parents than doctors. “Helicopter parents” is certainly one way to think about it.

  6. AL, that’s true, and the research is very exciting. But what’s being measured remains unclear, and calling it ‘appropriate organization of sensory data’ is premature. The best we can currently do is associate brain states with behavior and infer that the states condition the behavior, although whether as causes, correlates or effects is much harder to know.

    The glory and horror of behaviorists like Rosemond is that they don’t even try to get into the black box, to ‘chase down the ever-receding essence of the Other’. They just fiddle with inputs until they get the right outputs.

  7. So, in the case of this little girl it may well be you could run an fMRI and diagnostic tests that show conclusively the pattern of brain function we might choose to call ‘Sensory Processing Disorder’. And then Rosemond does his little trick and she’s handling her undies just fine. Was there a neurological disorder? Is there a neurological disorder when my students get all confused by the koans I throw at them? They’re certainly having trouble processing the sensory data. Gadamer described this category-fail as the essential precondition of learning, and now we’re going to call it a disorder?

  8. This was the part that caught my attention: “Distraction-proofing the work environment, putting her in charge of her own process, while creating performance accountability, is exactly how I finally got my dissertation done after several years of fairly creative stalling.” Making that transition from other-directed to self-directed motivation and accountability is a big deal.

  9. Hi Undine! I agree, and it’s especially a big deal if all their life experience tells them to wait for someone else to direct them and then judge their performance.

    I was just reading a story on NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon, who was talking about the joys of fatherhood including sitting on the bathroom floor trying to get his kid to go. And I’m thinking, ok then, get ready for a lifetime of that buddy. Right through grad school and into the first few years on the job, in fact.

  10. To answer the question way upthread: Don’t *all* people have fantasies of various sorts about the people around them? Well, some people do, some don’t, I suppose; mileage varies. Knowing this about myself, however, has also meant that I have a very good inner arbitrator who decides when those observations can leave my headspace in any way, shape, or form.

    As to my own self, one of the games I play when I’m forced to wait in a public space is to decide yes/no for every person who walks by. It’s interesting how quickly those judgments can emerge, and how surprising they can seem, which then causes me to circle back and try to figure out what it is that is attracting me, because it’s clearly not (just) conventional notions of attractiveness.

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