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Thursday, May 21, 2020

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 https:/

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". Adopted 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, however.

It will be interesting to see what response I get from ABC.

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