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Disinformation about Attachment Disorders on “Grey’s Anatomy”

CHILDMYTHS: Disinformation about Attachment Disorders on “Grey’s Anatomy”

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Disinformation about Attachment Disorders on “Grey’s Anatomy”

A few days ago I was involved in a discussion about a “therapy”
for children that featured rhythmic movement and was claimed to be effective
for ADHD. In the course of that conversation, someone happened to mention that
he had seen on the program “Grey’s Anatomy” a scene where a little girl was
crawling on the floor in a hospital. When asked by a doctor what was happening,
the mother replied that the child had an attachment disorder after being
adopted from China and the crawling on command was part of her treatment. The
doctor took this as perfectly ordinary and went on about his business.
I was shocked and disgusted at the presentation of this episode,
which had nothing to do with the story line. I cannot think of any good reason
why the scriptwriters would have inserted it. and I am concerned about its
potential for harm to children and families.
I wrote the following to the contact people listed for this program
by ABC:
“I am writing to express my concern about some misinformation
conveyed on an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy” that was aired on Jan. 20
of this year. The specific material that concerns me is summarized at
There are many wrong ideas in circulation about attachment,
attachment disorders, and possible problems of adopted children. When adoptive
parents believe incorrectly that their children are likely to have certain
problems, they may seek treatments that are unnecessary and that may cause both
direct and indirect harm. Unfortunately, the episode in this case may well have
reinforced some of those mistaken expectations.
Here are points of particular concern:
  1. The
    child is described as adopted from China and  as having an undefined
    “attachment disorder”. 
    children, from China or elsewhere, are no more likely than others to have
    any form of attachment disorder provided that they are adopted early and
    well cared for by their adoptive parents. To suggest that there is an
    obvious connection between being adopted and having an attachment disorder
    is a mistake. The suggestion conveys to naive adoptive parents the idea
    that they should expect their adopted child to have such a disorder and
    perhaps should seek preemptive treatment even though there are no signs of
    difficulty in development. There is a cottage industry of
    “coaches” and “educators” who will be happy to take
    the parents’ money and in some cases to use treatment methods that are
    potentially harmful. If the children do have other problems, for example
    speech and hearing disorders, seeking treatment for attachment problems
    will delay the interventions they really need.
Incidentally, the child’s behavior, clinging to her mother in this
frightening situation, would indicate that there is no problem of attachment at
work; this is what we would expect of a typically-developing child of her age.
2. The treatment for the notional attachment disorder is
represented as involving crawling on command.  
There are several
problems here. One is that a self-described parent educator and therapist who
claims to work with attachment disorders has asserted that she is able to
diagnose attachment disorders readily because the children cannot crawl backward
when told to do so. There is no evidence that crawling either backward or
forward is in any way associated with disorders of attachment, and I wonder
whether the use of this idea in the episode indicates the influence of the
“educator”. Second, the idea of crawling as a therapeutic method is
connected with the “patterning” fringe theory of the 1970s, which
asserted that the act of crawling in some way replicated early brain
development and insured that the two sides of the brain worked in coordination.
This idea was a fad for a while among educators and some parents, who accepted
without evidence the belief that crawling could cure autism, cerebral palsy,
and other serious physical and mental problems. Third, that the child should
crawl or do other things upon command is an aspect of  a fringe theory
that mistakenly equates attachment with obedience to adult authority.
I realize that the purpose of “Grey’s Anatomy” is
entertainment and not education, but I believe that entertainment can work very
well without introducing unnecessary misinformation–  even
disinformation– into the minds of some viewers who may because of their own
situations be all too ready to accept and even act on it. If the program had
introduced similar misinformation about physical illness, I am sure there would
have been prompt complaints and an effort to correct what had been done wrong.
I would really like to hear from you that the same sort of
response will occur in this case, where the issue is the treatment of children
who cannot act to protect themselves.
“Grey’s Anatomy” and other entertaining programs can do a real
service by presenting accurate information, although of course that is not
their major purpose. But there is no real excuse for their including false
beliefs. Wrong information about attachment and attachment disorders has been
on television programs for years, of course. If I remember correctly, “CSI” had
an episode based on Candace Newmaker’s death, but they changed the cause of
death to an allergic reaction (nobody’s fault) rather than the actual asphyxia,
so the presentation of the treatment was inaccurate. “Child of Rage” is still
showing regularly and convincing the naïve, including quite a few of my own
students, who were convinced it was a real documentary. Go back far enough and
you will see Elvis Pressley in “Changes of Habit”, curing an autistic child by
holding therapy.  It’s time this stopped,
It will be interesting to see what response I get from ABC.


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