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What’s in a name?

Food for Thought

I’ve always thought it interesting that things without names seem to be somehow more fascinating, mysterious, or just plain scary than things that have names. Names serve a variety of functions: some are descriptive, such as, waterfall, fireplace, sweet corn, football field. Those give us an image of the thing and explain its use. Most names, of course are simply nouns that provide basic information but can cover a wide range of similar ideas. These are things like teacher, vehicle, building, toy and moisture. Specific names are often capitalized, such as Brian Fleck, North Liberty, “Rhapsody in Blue,” “Gone With the Wind” or Pacific Ocean.
Then, there are some really important-sounding names, especially for diseases, that don’t tell us anything at all about the disease itself, but which are so named because someone famous suffered from them, or discovered or identified them. Parkinson’s Disease, Grave’s Disease, Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Others are equally mysterious unless you have a medical degree or are a dyed-in-the-wool hypochondriac. Look in any thesaurus and you will be astonished at the pages and pages of diseases and disorders listed. And that is just the names of the diseases. (For descriptions and symptoms, you have to look elsewhere.) And then there are an unknown number of conditions that haven’t been pinned down as specific diseases, so remain nameless. Somehow, it’s more comforting when you find out that whatever is wrong with you has a name and is not one of the mysterious unknowns.
I remember a very quiet and withdrawn boy in my high school class, (we’ll call him Kirk) who some thought was anti-social, others considered him angry, retarded, mute or simply shy. But whatever it was, we all knew he was different and generally felt sorry for him. If any classmates teased, mocked, bullied or were otherwise unkind to him, I never saw it. We didn’t know why Kirk was the way he was, we gave up trying to get through to him and he became more or less invisible, as well as silent and inactive. We didn’t know what his problem was, and we couldn’t figure out what to do about it. Better to just ignore Kirk. We might even have been just a little bit afraid that, if we did the wrong thing, we might turn on something that couldn’t be turned off. He might go into a violent rage, hurt himself or somebody else. Best to just ignore him and let him live in his own little, isolated world.
We had never heard the word “autistic.”
It was not too many years after our high school graduation, that the word came to my attention. There was still not a lot of information about the causes or any treatment for autism, but at least it had a name.
There has been some progress since then, though science is still a long way from preventing the condition in the first place. There’s a lot of evidence that it may be a genetic disorder, and then. . .? There has been some success with therapy, with medical treatments, but results are not consistent, each child, each case, is different to begin with, and what helps one child doesn’t necessarily help another. And there seem to be different degrees of autism, some approaching borderline. It makes me wonder if it’s a matter of infinite degrees and that we all have a touch of autism and we only notice– and name– the more extreme degrees.
I was touched, recently, by a news item about a garbage truck driver who noticed a small boy who seemed to be fascinated by the garbage truck. The driver, a kind man, with undoubtedly the instincts of a great father, took the time and trouble to befriend the boy who never spoke, yet astounded everybody who knew him by announcing “want a truck.”
At about the same time, there was a frightening incident of a 13-year-old autistic boy who went missing at Camp Courageous near the Maquoketa River. It was reported that he was with two camp counselors. One of the counselors turned his back and the boy disappeared. An intensive search failed to find him, until a man with experience with an autistic child, suggested looking near the river, saying that those with autism seemed to seek out water. The boy was found at the river and reported to be unharmed (I have to assume that meant physically unharmed). I have a lot of questions about that report. What was the boy doing there when they found him? How do they know he wasn’t harmed in ways other than physically? And most of all– for, how long did the counselor turn his back, and for what purpose? And what was that other counselor doing?