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Nadia’s Case

In response to:

Portrait of the Artist from the May 4, 1978 issue

To the Editors:

I would like to thank Nigel Dennis for his appreciative review of my book, Nadia—A Case of Extraordinary Drawing Ability in an Autistic Child [NYR, May 4]. However, there are a number of comments I would like to make about some of the points he raises.

Firstly, I think it wrong to regard Nadia’s drawing as communication in any normal sense. We have no grounds for attributing Nadia with an intention to communicate through her drawings as she often drew when she was alone, she did not actively show her drawings to others and showed no interest whatsoever in how others reacted to her drawings.

I did, of course, consider the possible influences of Nadia’s emotional experiences on her capacity to draw and on her lack of language. Nigel Dennis’s account of these experiences is rather more dramatic and traumatic than the facts. Nadia has a sister, just one year younger, who was subject to the same experiences, at perhaps a more vulnerable age, and whose development has been perfectly normal.

Though I would think that it is probable there was some connection between Nadia’s lack of language and her drawing ability I do not suggest a causal relationship but that they both may be the consequence of a further factor such as an inability to form concepts. There was no reason to assume that in teaching Nadia the beginnings of normal communication this would bring about a change in the style of her drawings. The accusation that the psychologists in charge (after I had left, as it happens) took it upon themselves to turn her from a “genius,” a description I would consider inappropriate anyway, into a normal retarded child, is quite unjustified. And surely Mr. Dennis cannot be serious in his suggestion that we should have kept Nadia from normal childhood experiences virtually incommunicado.

Finally, Mr. Dennis appears to have chosen this case as a platform on which to harangue Philistine empirical psychologists. In fact he has chosen the wrong adversaries. In this country, John and Elizabeth Newson, the Directors of the Child Development Research Unit where I was a student, are noted and even criticized for their humanistic psychology. In this context Mr. Dennis may see that some of my remarks, which he construes as naive, were intended to be ironic.

Lorna Selfe

London, England

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