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Idiocy: And Its Treatment By The Physiological Method

Creator: Edward Seguin (author)
Date: 1907
Publisher: Teachers' College, Columbia University
Source: Available at selected libraries

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Therefore we must not confound with imbeciles, insanes, epileptics, etc., the harmless idiot, sitting awkwardly, bashful, or at least reserved on our approach. He will answer us if he can, rarely mistaking, never deceiving, but oftentimes failing to understand. His mind is extremely limited but not deranged, and with no special tendency to final insanity. He has been hurt often, but he never assailed anybody; he loves quiet places and arrangements; repeated monotonous sounds, or stillness, and above all plain and familiar faces; he has a look, not of envy at things and persons, but of abstraction, gazing far out of this world into a something which neither we nor he can discern.


How could any child, subject to other disease or infirmity, be mistaken for him? Nevertheless this confusion takes place. Practically and legally, the idiot has been assimilated to unfortunate beings whose rights upon society are different from his; and he has suffered deeply by the mistake.


The child nearest akin to an idiot is called simply backward, in French enfant arriéré; his character may be better delineated by comparison with the idiot, who presents even in superficial cases an arrest of development, whilst the feeble-minded child is only retarded in his. The idiot has disordinate movements, cannot use his hands, swings his body in walking, presents some sensorial vices or incapacity; on the other hand, the backward child is free from any disordered activity, uses his hands naturally but with very little effectiveness, walks without defect, but without firmness or elasticity, presents no sensorial anomaly but does not much use his senses to quicken his sluggish comprehension; when the idiot does not seem to make any progress, and when the ordinary child improves in the ratio of ten, the backward child improves only in that of one, two, three, or five. This child may be, and is in fact, actually educated with the confirmed idiot; and there is no inconvenience, but advantage, in their being treated alike.


The same could not be said of the following case, which is now as rarely met among idiots as it frequently was thirty years ago in the "hospices" and poor-houses. He looks dignified, sad, depressed, wistful, immovable, idiotic -- but worse than an idiot, he is a dement. There does not seem to be a sensible difference between them,, but idiocy is accompanied by some sensorial disorders, begins young, by its worst symptoms, and generally ends quite early; whilst dementia commences in later life, is accompanied by an insidious touch of paralysis, especially of the sphincters; it soon alters the alae nasi and the external auditory apparatus, and eventually may continue to a great age, ending by its worst symptoms.


A young lad who looks and stands like an idiot, with deep, dull eyes, hollow cheeks, thin, hanging hands, flesh gone from his long, lank limbs, and empty frame; a prey to fever, languor, inappetence; tired of everything, forgetting instead of learning, avoiding company and light, sleepless yet never wide awake, speech embarrassed, mind absent, hope, gayety, cheerfulness, friendship, love, future, all given up for the worship of one's self, and of a few apparitions evoked by the mania of self-destruction; his tendency is toward early death, through imbecility or dementia.


Though insanity is not common among children, it is easily mistaken in them for idiocy, notwithstanding that every day marks a new difference between the two. Thus incipient insanity does not affect the general, nor the special movements as idiocy does; nor the general, but the sensorial sensibility, producing mistaken sensations as hallucinations, that idiocy does not. Intellectually, the young insane may learn easily or with incredible facility; but has rarely the comprehensive retention which amasses true learning; the idiot has a negative will or none, the insane has a deep, fated-like determination. We have observed two classes of these children laboring under a more or less confirmed tendency to insanity. One has a firm step, bright colors and general richness of tissue; his ears reddening occasionally, and his eyes flashing instead of quietly looking. Incapable of attention though he tries hard, loving and impressible, there may be something the matter with his speech, as periods of mutism and of loquacity; thus, by times, he cannot repeat a word, and at others he will spontaneously emit several sentences. He commands with difficulty to his movements, as those necessary for drawing, gymnastics, etc. He is clean, has no difficulty in dressing himself, his hands are perfect, no function seems altered; but the older he grows the stranger he looks, till finally he gives signs of incoherence. The other one is a fine child too, physically, but rather pale and angular. His traits of character are more strongly delineated than those of the first. His features are sharper, his look more shaded by the brow, his mind deeper, his intellectual culture easier, his moral propensities worse. He is jealous, cruel, unflinching, yielding to force only, losing nothing of his natural tendency to cruel sprightliness under a temporary pressure of authority. He has of the idiot neither the gentleness, the blank look, the deficiency of understanding, the timidity, the obedience, the affection. Every day shows his moral character by more and more of these traits which make him dangerous, and fit him only for seclusion. When quite young, children such as these are readily accepted in the institution for idiots, because they do not then apparently differ from these latter, as the baby idiot looks like a well-born child, as long as both cannot make any comparative show of activity; so, as long as there can be no display of reasoning or of human passions it is nearly impossible to discriminate them. Of the two kinds of children with insane propensities, the first needs more education, and is more impervious to it; the second requires more moral training, and is the more refractory to its rules. We have studied only those two classes of children tending to insanity, but we think that there are several more.

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