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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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The sense of touch being the most general, and in fact all the senses being mere modifications of it, we shall begin by it the training.


Although there is more than one sense in the touch, since there we find special nerves for pleasure and pain, cold and heat, pressure, etc., it does not behoove our subject to consider this sense under more than two of its aspects: one as a receiver of sensation constituting the touch proper, the other as seeker of sensations deserving the name of tact. By the first we perceive that we are touched by some body; by the second, we seek for certain characters or properties of bodies. In the exercise of the former we are to a certain extent passive, ready or not to receive the coming impression; in the exercise of the latter we are essentially ready and active. This does not constitute two senses, but two modi operandi of the same sense: the like remark obtains for the other senses; and if we can conform our training to this modus operandi of nature, we shall find our task of awakening the senses comparatively easy.


The Tactile function is the most important of our senses, as we have seen it the most general, and preceding all the others at birth. This sense is almost neglected in education, sadly abandoned in children to habits of dirtiness and depravity, and in women its disorders are intimately blended with those of hysteria, etc. In idiots the touch often does not send to the mind, or the mind does not receive from the touch its normal impressions; if it be not sickly and concentrated in one or two pleasing, repeated sensations, it is devoid of the ability of perceiving new ones, not wished by the mind. This sense in its passive and active moods is dull for all intellectual and practical purposes, and if exceptionally exalted is found governed by a few sickly susceptibilities.


If we examine the hand, moist with saliva, or in automatic agitation, and if we except the few peculiarities of delicacy above referred to, that hand gives scarcely any sign of feeling contacts; and decidedly far from desirous of using its tactile sense, tries to escape its exercise by all means. But if we take it after a series of prehensive and imitatory trainings as those described above, we find it moist with the gentle perspiration of labor, a little agitated by its previous actions, but quite ready for a new set of experiments.


These experiments will be of three kinds; one to cultivate the perception, one to transmit it, one to give the knowledge of it; and though these three operations are always more or less united, it will be easy to perceive that the exercises may be calculated so that each one of these operations preƫminates over the others, and we have only to make our choice in each series of exercise, according to the part of the whole function which needs the most of training.


When the peripheric termini of the nerves of touch are excitable or morbidly exquisite, we see the child avoiding normal contacts, and his organs left entirely a prey to the painful sensibilities of hyperaesthesia. Before doing anything to correct these perversions of the touch, let us look at their seat in the integuments, mostly in the hands. If they have not been levelled to the standard of working hands by previous gymnastics, they offer a curious assemblage of transparency, stiffness, and emaciation. Our duty here is imperative; at the same time that we give suppleness to the phalanges by passive exercises, we must hasten to cover the nervous termini with stronger epithelium by repeated friction against hard substances; anything which is rough enough is good enough for this purpose, as carrying bricks, turning coarse-handled cranks, spading, sawing, etc.


But when the external termini of the nerves of touch are dull or insensible, by looking at the hand we ascertain a softness of the articulations, an absence of prehension, a want of warmth and of circulation, greatly aggravated in winter. These signs of anaesthesia indicate another course of treatment; the objects of contact must not be rough, but substantial; this condition appeals for a full use of contractibility; at the same time the hand must be titillated with feathers as if it were for fun, passed upon bodies of various degrees of polish or of resistance, as on a slab of marble, or on velvet, etc. It must be plunged alternately into cold and warm liquids, in agglomerations of bodies of different softness or elasticity, as bags filled with eider-down, shells, peas, flour, small shot, etc. The child without the concurrence of the sight, must tell the difference between the contents of these bags by the sole impression of his touch, etc.


The occasions for the special trainings of the peripheric organs of touch are of frequent occurrence; they being so often under and above the normal standard of sensibility.


Once we had a girl, seven years of age, much afflicted; for, besides her idiocy, which was superficial, she could not stand on her weak legs. Her sensations of sight and hearing were good, those of smell and taste rather fastidious; those of the tactile order, instead of being concentrated and intellectualized in the hands, were rather running wild through her frail crippled body, which could stand almost no contacts, or was seeking for those of an enervating order, making her a very nervous, tiresome, and often miserable child; against this tactile infirmity, which was tending rapidly, in our judgment, towards a more specific nervous affection, we instituted a series of tactile experiments drawn from collections of everything that could be handled; her eyes were shut, her hands ready, the things given to her and named by her, in a continuous and contrasting succession; attention of the touch, that is to say, protracted tactile exercises, gave a new direction to her feelings, she became more quiet and could use her once useless hands after a short time for ordinary purposes.

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