Article Highlight: Vol. 41, Issue 1, “Innocent or Intentional?: Interpreting Oppositional Defiant Disorder in a Preschool Mental Health Clinic”

To begin article highlights from our latest edition of Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry (Vol. 41, Iss. 1), this week we are featuring Christine El Ouardani’s Innocent or Intentional?: Interpreting Oppositional Defiant Disorder in a Preschool Mental Health Clinic. This article examines contradictions clinicians face when attempting to identify and interpret “intentionality” in young children with oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). El Ouardani argues that conceptualizing intentionality as a developmental, interpersonal process may help to make sense of the multiple discourses and practices clinicians use to try to reconcile the contradictions inherent in diagnosing ODD.

El Ouardani begins by introducing “Carla,” a three-year-old who arrived for evaluation and clinical diagnostic determination at the Preschool Behavior Disorder Clinic (PBDC). At first Carla appears as any typical preschooler, energetic and affectionate, but the care team quickly learns she would frequently have violent outbursts and tantrums, lashing out at her family members, other children, or even nearby animals. This type of aggressive, disruptive behavior represents the main reason for the referral of preschoolers to mental health clinics. Early intervention into and treatment of such behaviors is thus of great interest to researchers and clinicians in the field of child mental health care in hopes of helping the young children adapt and cope with life more effectively and prevent the development of later, more destructive behaviors.

El Ouardani discusses that many of the children seen in the PBDC were given a diagnosis of oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV (DSM-IV) as “a recurrent pattern of negativistic, defiant, disobedient, and hostile behavior toward authority figures that persists for at least 6 months” that impairs a child’s social and/or academic functioning. Yet with very young, preschool-aged children, the diagnosis is controversial. Many children displaying aggressive behavior come from chaotic or otherwise problematic social environments in which this kind of behavior is a reasonable reaction. El Ouardani states that clinicians “must reconcile their characterization of disruptive behavior as a matter of ‘self,’ with the social environments that seem to be producing this kind of behavior.” El Ouardani also draws attention to the values and assumptions of current treatment models and diagnostic procedures. These modules are often based on white, middle-class norms of a “proper” family, moral assumptions of how parents should discipline their children, and the assumed role of a child in social institutions. Many patients at the PBDC did not fall into those characterizations; the reality of their lives are much different.

Moving to a discussion of agency and intentionality, El Ouardani then examines the biomedical, disease model of mental illness, which attempts to remove the blame for the illness from the individual. “Ideologically, then, those afflicted with mental disorders bear no responsibility for the behaviors that directly result from their disorders,” El Ouardani writes, since the biological processes of mental illness are taken out of the patient’s control. Thus, ODD as a category defined by “intentional” defiance conflicts with the disease model of mental illness. “A central concern of psychiatric therapeutics is to motivate and use the intentionality of a patient to regain control over the self.” Yet the idea that preschool-aged children are fully capable of acting with this type of intention, and possess the capacity to do so, is disputed. Therefore clinicians diagnosing a young child with ODD are forced to face the disparities between what is out of the child’s control, and what is the “will” of the child.

While discussing the diagnostic criteria for ODD as described in the DSM-IV, El Ouardani emphasizes the criteria for an ODD diagnosis requires the child to be aware of his or her own behavior and is purposely trying to upset or defy the person with whom they are interacting. From this criteria, ODD-labeled children are manipulative and spiteful, qualities that require a degree of intentional malice and deception. These characteristics are not thought to be present in other kinds of childhood mental disorders, such as depression, anxiety, neurodevelopmental disorders, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Clinicians also attribute ODD children with controlling their behavior to influence “weaker” adults, depicting these children as culpable and intentional in their attempts to “confuse and subvert the efforts of their caretakers who are trying to control their behavior.”

El Ouardani discuses that determining intentionality is a complex process, especially because of a child’s limited verbal capacity for expressing internal states. “In order to identify intentional defiance and diagnose ODD, clinicians had to delineate authentic displays of emotion from those that are inauthentic and manipulative.” El Ouardani explains that nuanced, intersubjective exchanges between the children and the clinicians are not captured within the DSM-IV diagnosis. Clinicians often feel frustrated when they perceive a child is trying to manipulate them. This can be compared to clinicians stating “that they feel bad for children with depressive symptoms. They theorized that disruptive behavior in depressed children is a way to cope with internal pain.” This difference means the clinicians feel less personally attacked by children without the ODD diagnosis, becoming less frustrated. Further, by diagnosing a child with multiple disorders the clinicians can discursively split the child’s “self” into different intentional and non-intentional parts. However, this leads to ODD being categorized as a feature of the individual’s character, who that child is as an individual, rather than as a biological disease.

Explanations for why a particular child’s behavior were not always attended to within the PBDC. “Clinicians tended to rely upon the widely accepted idea that behavior and psychopathology is a result of interactions between biological temperament and the social environment. According to this model of developmental psychopathology, innate temperament interacts with problematic interpersonal relationships and chaotic household environments, causing the child to react to these negative circumstances with disruptive behavior.” Yet this strategy still leaves ambiguities over etiology and treatment.

El Ouardani concludes her article with a discussion of the treatment modality. Clinicians regularly spend the majority of the treatment focused on teaching caretakers how to more effectively discipline and relate to the children. The clinicians primarily focus on a lack of consistency in discipline and structure in both interactions and routines, thus, if the caretakers correctly implement strategic routines, the child will then change their behavior over time. “However, clinicians also informally acknowledged these techniques, which took time and energy that many of the caretakers coming from stressful, low-income, single-caretaker families did not necessarily have.”


Dr. Christine El Ouardani is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Human Development at California State University, Long Beach. She is a cultural, medical, and psychological anthropologist who focuses on the anthropology of childhood and lifecourse in Morocco and in North America. El Ouardani’s current book project, Discipline and Development: Negotiating Childhood, Authority, and Violence in Rural Morocco, examines the everyday lives of children and youth in a Moroccan village as they move through their families, classrooms, and medical clinics. She analyzes disciplinary interactions between children and caretakers in their extended families and local schools that were often both violent and playful, demonstrating how local conceptions of authority, care, pain, and violence are constructed and enacted in everyday life at different points throughout childhood, and in different institutions.  El Ouardani shows how examining the nuances of child socialization practices over time and children’s roles in family and community life provides a sharp lens through which to consider larger-scale political, economic, and social change, in this case, contested norms of authority and violence in Moroccan families. For more information, visit her information page on the Department of Human Development, California State Universtity, Long Beach, available here.

 

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Special Issue Highlight: The Anthropology of Autism, Part 1

The newly released June 2015 special issue of Culture, Medicine & Psychiatry addresses anthropological studies of autism from around the world, including the United States, India, and Italy. In this installment and the next entry on the blog, we will explore four articles published in the latest issue. This research spans the fields of disability studies, psychological anthropology, and medical anthropology, and touch on themes of identity, subjectivity, family caregiving, and community. Here, we will focus on two articles in this publication.


Parenting a Child with Autism in India: Narratives Before and After a Parent–Child Intervention Program

Rachel S. Brezis, et al.

Throughout India, there are limited social services and support networks for individuals with autism and their families. Furthermore, neurodiverse (and mentally ill) individuals have historically been cared for in private by family members in India, where they are hidden from the community and may be treated as a mark of shame on the household. However, despite these challenges, Indian parents of children with autism are increasingly seeking out professional programs that educate them about autism and appropriate caregiving strategies.

One such program in New Delhi, the Parent-Child Training Program (PCTP), evidences the changing view towards autism in India. The program aims to educate parents about autism and, in so doing, encourage them to educate others about the experience of raising a child with the condition. Parents bring their child to PCTP and learn alongside them. As the first program in India to provide such training, its examination proves essential in understanding the way that various populations (here in India) are now approaching the shifting landscape of autism.

Brezis and colleagues studied the PCTP to discover how the training was altering parents’ perceptions of autism and relationships with their children. They interviewed 40 pairs of parents at the beginning and end of the 3-month program, encouraging the parents to speak for five minutes without prompts regarding their child and their relationship to the child.

The authors found that parents who participated in the three-month program were less likely to describe their children in relation to an assumed “normality,” although mothers proved to be more likely than fathers to self-reflect on their relationship with their child. Similarly, while parents described their child’s behaviors no less frequently in the second and final interview, they did not note behavior in relation to other individuals’ behavior perceived as “normal.”

To learn more about this research, click here for a link to the article: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11013-015-9434-y

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Custodial Homes, Therapeutic Homes, and Parental Acceptance: Parental Experiences of Autism in Kerala, India and Atlanta, GA USA

Jennifer C. Sarrett

Like Brezis et al, Sarrett also investigates Indian caregiving and parental experiences of autism, while comparing this context to autism and the family in the United States. In both cases, Sarrett asks how the home as space and place impacts the meaning of disability for people with autism. She interviewed seventeen caregivers in Atlanta and thirty-one in Kerala, and observed seventeen families in Kerala and five families in Atlanta who had also participated in interviews. Sarrett concludes that though there are some similarities in the constellation of autism-specific and biomedical services that may be available to Keralite and American families, the arrangement of households themselves drastically changes the way autistic children are cared for in each location.

In Kerala, for example, mothers serve as both full-time child caregivers as well as domestic laborers, often spending long hours washing clothes by hand and cooking from scratch. Keralite children with autism have few interactive toys that are specifically geared to engaging them, few devices that may control their movements and behaviors (such as baby gates) or assist them in communication (such as an electronic device that voices requests for food or other needs.) Such tools are common in Atlanta households. However, they have consistent household care from mothers who manage all domestic labor with no outside employment.

Households with autistic children in Atlanta, meanwhile, are specifically retrofitted for the needs of the child. There are picture cards that children may use to show caregivers and parents an item of food that they wish to eat, as well as a calendar in the kitchen or office that marks doctors’ appointments and family events geared for socialization with the autistic child. Baby gates, cabinet locks, and other safety devices ensure the child does not come into contact with household dangers (such as kitchen knives and cleaning solutions.)

In sum, these tools are designed to change and improve the behavior of the child. The home itself is structured to be a therapeutic space: requiring material and financial resources that Keralite families do not have to physically adjust their households. Instead, Keralite families focus not on improving or altering an autistic child’s behavior, but rather emphasize consistent caregiving for the child. In both cases, however, parents are committed to creating an environment (be it material or social) in which a child with autism can be integrated into the activities of the household, and thus into the family’s social world. Despite cultural, and certainly resource, differences between Indian and American families, they share a common commitment to building home support systems for their developmentally disabled children.

Click here to access the full text of this article: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11013-015-9441-z


To access all of the articles in this issue, click here: http://link.springer.com/journal/11013/39/2/page/1