New Theories, Age-Old Reactions

History is replete with examples of new scientific discoveries being met by resistance and antipathy. In the 17th century, Galileo was accused of heresy and arrested because he propagated the theory that the sun, rather than the earth, was at the center of the known universe. In the 19th century and well beyond, Darwin’s theories on natural selection and the origin of the species were treated with ridicule, disdain, and outrage. Before the 20th century and the advent of the field of psychiatry, mental illness was often viewed as the product of demonic possession and the notion that biology and environment might play a role was deemed absurd. In all of these cases and numerous others, early skepticism and resistance eventually gave way to reason and evidence. Hypotheses once brushed aside became accepted as fact.

The tension that exists between established and newly proposed “truths,” between what we have known and what we have learned, is part and parcel of the human experience. Anything that challenges the dominant paradigms is naturally going to evoke strong reactions and create conflict. Growth is frequently painful. But if history teaches us anything it is that today’s truth can be tomorrow’s antiquated notion so there is value in remaining open-minded and curious.

Case in point, burgeoning evidence of a disorder that interferes with an individual’s ability to process and integrate sensory stimuli. As reported by Benedict Carey in the New York Times, a push for greater recognition of this “new” disorder is creating some waves:

The Disorder Is Sensory; the Diagnosis, Elusive

DENVER — Almost every parent of young children has heard an anguished cry or two (or 200) something like:

“This shirt is scratchy, this shirt is scratchy, get it off!�

“This oatmeal smells like poison, it’s poisonous!�

“My feet are hot, my feet are hot, my feet are boiling!�

Such bizarre, seemingly overblown reactions to everyday sensations can end in tears, parents know, or escalate into the sort of tantrum that brings neighbors to the door asking whether everything’s all right.

Usually, it is. The world for young children is still raw, an acid bath of strange sights, smells and sounds, and it can take time to get used to it.

Yet for decades some therapists have argued that there are youngsters who do not adjust at all, or at least not normally. They remain oversensitive, continually recoiling from the world, or undersensitive, banging into things, duck-walking through the day as if not entirely aware of their surroundings.

The problem, these therapists say, is in the brain, which is not properly integrating the onslaught of information coming through the senses, often causing anxiety, tantrums and problems in the classroom. Such difficulties, while common in children with developmental disorders like autism, also occur on their own in many otherwise healthy youngsters, they say.

No one has a standard diagnostic test for these sensory integration problems, nor any idea of what might be happening in the brain. Indeed, a diagnosis of such problems is not yet generally accepted. Nor is there evidence to guide treatment, which makes many doctors, if they have heard of sensory problems at all, skeptical of the diagnosis.

Yet in some urban and suburban school districts across the county, talk of sensory integration has become part of the special-needs vernacular, along with attention deficit disorder and developmental delays. Though reliable figures for diagnosis rates are not available, the number of parent groups devoted to sensory problems has more than tripled in the last few years, to 55 nationwide.

And now this subculture wants membership in mainstream medicine. This year, for the first time, therapists and researchers petitioned the American Psychiatric Association to include “sensory processing disorder� in its influential guidebook of disorders, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Official recognition would bring desperately needed research, they say, as well as more complete coverage for treatment, which can run to more than $10,000 a year.

But many psychiatrists, pediatricians, family doctors and school officials fear that if validated, sensory processing disorder could become rampant — a vague diagnosis that could stick insurers and strapped school districts with enormous bills for unproven therapies. The decision is not expected for three or four years, but the controversy is well under way. [full text]

One thought on “New Theories, Age-Old Reactions

  1. as we get more ways to test subtle differences in how people think and process information, we are going to find more and more people who are different. i’ve always been sceptical about the existence of ‘normal’ anyway, and being an artist i never aspired to that state.
    a common-sense approach would be to recognize that all children need good food, safety, love, teaching, a place to run around, steps to independence in the world. our polluted, traffic-choked, crime-obsessed society can’t meet all those needs. but we could start by re-hiring the gym teachers and getting the asphalt off the playground.

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