Adulthood as disability

A friend asked if I could explain further what Waldon means by his claim that “adulthood may be interpreted as a retarded stage of childhood”, which I quoted in my last post. I’m no expert on Waldon, but I’ve read through enough Waldon-related material now to think that I can venture an “amateur” explanation without risk of being too far off the mark.


Waldon is of course being somewhat rhetorical here, but this point springs from his developmental theory, which distinguishes between General and Particular Understanding. The first is anthropologically invariant, scientific in nature, and primarily the product of the infant’s spontaneous exploration of space. The second is culturally specific and socially mediated. Waldon thinks that through the course of development, General Understanding tends to give way to Particular, as the child comes to experience ever more complex layers of social expectation and convention, and these demand an ever larger share of their cognition. This is a natural course of development, but in the process the infant at play’s great capacity for spontaneity, originality and universality, and the uncovering of profound truths, is tendentially lost.

A Waldon Lesson
A Waldon Lesson. “From Every Child Can Learn”.

Waldon thinks that disabilities occur on both levels of the Understanding. A child may have some neurological, anatomical or genetic hindrance to their pursuit of a “normal” developmental path, which typically occurs by impairing their capacity for movement, since movement in space is the basis of all “meaning” or understanding for Waldon. But this initial disability is magnified greatly by the expectations of parents and others, which foist a social pressure onto the child which can be overwhelming. This is the root of the various “behaviours” associated with infants struggling with Autistic Spectrum Disorders, for example: due to their lagging cognitive development, which is grounded in some movement difficulty, they experience themselves as falling short of social expectations, and develop behavioural tics as a way of dealing with the anxiety. These can become complex patterns of coping strategies which absorb a lot of energy and focus, and create a further obstacle to development.

Thus, with developmental disorders, the demands of the Particular Understanding hinder the development of the General. But that is of course the case with normal development too: as we age, social pressures and socially-mediated experience can easily crowd out whatever time we have for “scientific” free-play and spontaneous, self-initiated activity. This is why adulthood is, for Waldon, a “retarded” state of childhood. The major difference with developmental disorders, for Waldon, is simply that the usual process of decay sets in more rapidly, before the General Understanding has been given sufficient chance to establish itself with the core foundations of cognition such as pairing and matching; separating and sorting; sequencing and seriation.

The therapeutic task for someone working with developmental disorders is then one of trying to open up the space for the development of General Understanding, while keeping the demands of Particular Understanding at bay. For this reason, it involves what Waldon calls the “asocial lesson”, in which the pedagogue tries to facilitate or scaffold the student’s activities while refraining from any directly social interaction, and indeed tries to be a “thing” in a certain sense. You can see Waldon doing this in the video in my last post—looking pointedly, disinterestedly away when the child tries to catch his eye.

There seems to be a definite “politics” implied by many of Waldon’s formulations, with social-critical implications. One could probably guess which ambient aspects of 1960s and 70s political culture he might have felt affinities with. This is not simply a matter of what one might reflexively term the “Rousseauian” implications of a theory that regards adulthood in a sense as a degeneration from a relatively elevated state of infancy. Considerations of efficiency are also at play: if the socially-mediated world of the Particular Understanding is one in which demands of efficiency and time-saving hold sway, the reverse obtains for the General Understanding. The more time and effort that can be expended upon developing one’s sense of bodily integration and experiencing the unfolding of its purposeful movement in space, the better. If there is a notion of “wasting” time and energy here, it is a paradoxical one, in which the real waste comes in chasing norms of efficiency when it would be better to allow an excess of free exploration to unfold.

If Waldon’s is a theory of child development then, it should probably be contrasted to the kinds of standardised measures of “normal” development that feed the anxieties of new parents by telling us that in y week your child should be doing z, such as the dreaded—but mysteriously popular—“Wonder Weeks”, which takes this way of thinking to an extreme. Some notion of normal development is probably necessary if we are to take seriously the problems that infants encounter as they struggle to grow into the world. Waldon’s is a theory of fundamental, necessary stages, which need to be worked through for understanding to be fully achieved. But these are qualitative, and involve no calendar entries.

Efficiency is not the only dirty word for Waldon: the division of labour too is seen as corruptive of General Understanding and of science. It seems that in some sense Waldon saw the capitalist society of his moment as detrimental to the General Understanding—and thus, we might say, as productive of disability.

In a society where the division of labour is so extreme that we can call upon
the expert services of a specialist in virtually any emergency, we are prone to
forget that this comfortable state of excessive dependence on others has not
always been and may not always be with us, so that to deny a child the
chance to explore the roots of the less likely may be to deprive him of the
ability to interpret and deal with the improbable when it does arise.

By recognising and cultivating the naturally effort- wasteful behaviours of the
young child and by encouraging his pursuit of pleasure in sheer doing, and by
controlling our impatience for his becoming an energy-conserving, time-
conscious, anxious, accuracy-orientated grown-up, we can foster the
enlargement of his basic capacity and give him time to experiment.

—“Understanding Understanding

There was something of the “mystic” to Waldon: presenting his texts on child development in self-consciously opaque fashion, because he had the conviction that the development of Understanding has to be a struggle. He remains an odd, marginal figure, still unpublished today; the founder of a what looks like a sort of subculture in special needs pedagogy almost unknown in most of the world—albeit with an institutional presence in Oxfordshire and Slovenia, and a quiet presence under the name “Functional Learning”, as described in the book Every Child Can Learn. The theory and the practice have a certain elegance, and the ideas of “meaning from movement” and the Understanding seem to offer insights on atypical development. “Understanding Understanding”—the essay I took that quote from—is worth a read, as is Walter Solomon, Chris Holland and Mary Jo Middleton’s useful account of the approach, Autism and Understanding.

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