Loners: The Life Path of Unusual Children
If you want to get an idea of what it is like to be an orchid child, look no further than Loners: The Life Path of Unusual Children (1995) by Sula Wolff written some 20 years before the term became widespread. The book reports on a longitudinal study of schizoid children, some of who became renowned scientists and some of who never made it and ended up with psychotic diseases such as schizophrenia or paranoid personality disorder or committed suicide. Some of the typical characteristics of schizoid children were:
- unusual fantasies
- special interests
- specific developmental delays
- odd utterances and frequent use of metaphor
- frequently diagnosed with mental health or developmental problems
The majority of the loner children had normal lives, however they tended to be late bloomers in many respects:
- Moving out from the parental home at a later age (or not at all)
- Getting married at a later age (or not at all)
- Having children at a later age (or not at all)
- Finding their career path later in life (or not at all)
The author doesn’t get tired of mentioning the high degree of similarity between the schizoid children and those diagnosed with Asperger’s. In fact, I suppose many of those children would get a diagnosis of ASD or ODD (oppositional defiant disorder). However, as Wolff wonders throughout the book, most of these cases aren’t probably really pathological. So, what’s the story?
Few parents are aware of them, all teachers are: loners. Having been both a loner and a teacher, I can relate to a lot of them. You won’t find them in all classes, but — depending on the size of the school — there will always be a few of them in each school. When I was a high school student these kids often flew under the radar. Nowadays, I rarely have a loner child who hasn’t been diagnosed with some kind of alphabet soup disorder: ASD, ADHD, PTSD, or GAD (you can google them), are the ones I have had.
Wolff found that most of her schizoid children had very rich inner lives, often they had created imaginary worlds (think of Middle Earth, but less elaborate) or imaginary friends. While I did have a rich inner life, I don’t remember ever having had an imaginary friend, but two of my children did. Those imaginary friends are a testimony that these children aren’t asocial or antisocial by nature, but that they do long for friendships, which they struggle with in real life. These children are likely to feel somewhat alienated. My oldest son would claim in his first year of kindergarten that his family isn’t from Austria but from England (probably because he felt different from everyone else). This is also attested by the name of his imaginary friend, Quaday (who was supposedly from India). My younger daughter’s imaginary friend’s name is Physalis and I have found many other strange-sounding names (that would indicate a far-away origin) on the web: Hydrox, Henna, Quabo and Spuffy.
This is rather important, as from the point of view of evolutionary psychology asocial children should simply not exist. People with schizoid personality disorder are simply not likely to reproduce. And this was even more true in our human past when we relied much more on other people for survival than we do nowadays. Let’s have a look at a typical example of a schizoid boy:
He remembers coming and he remembers you as being sympathetic to him. He could never understand why there was a problem. He didn’t really enjoy being at school and trying to learn what other people wanted him to learn nor the way they tried to do it. He always wanted to go his own way. He hasn’t basically changed. It’s just easier when you’re not at school. He has a detached appreciation of things. [He’s]…a non-conformist and if you press [him] too far, you’ll disturb him. He now knows that it [coming to the clinic] helped me to be confident that my analysis of him was reasonably correct…. The school always said ‘You’re encouraging him. We can’t go on making exceptions of him.’ This mother was keen to see me at the time of the follow-up, because [there are] a lot of individuals with basically nothing wrong with them but at the extreme of personality. ..and I wanted to be sure that people knew about such children and could support them and their parents in the face of school advice to insist on conformity, which really makes matters worse . After a number of changes of school, much unhappiness and considerable behavioural disturbance, the educational psychologists finally arranged for this boy to move to a very small private day school, where he was allowed to follow his own interests. The mother recalled: ‘He was fine at…school, although educationally it was poor. And he’s been much better since he left school.’ While attending ordinary school this boy was unhappy, stole and had occasional aggressive outbursts. These symptoms all disappeared when he entered his small school, where all children had an individually tailored programme. He left school at 16 with qualifications below those expected for a boy of his intelligence. He took an arduous menial job for a while but later followed his bent in work which involved design, construction and photography.
In this paragraph, we can see well the orchid nature of his personality. And I agree with his mother, there is nothing wrong with the boy, he just struggles with authority and conformity. These are traits we often admire in adults who fought for noble causes, such as an egalitarian society, liberty and fraternity, people like Gandhi and Mandela. Why should we pathologize children who might later stand up for women’s equality or fight for justice? The connection may seem far-fetched at first sight, however, both have the same underlying evolutionary programming: an egalitarian hunter-gatherer mind. Hunter-gatherers do not obey authority and hierarchy, nor do the try to dominate other people and tell them what to do. All these things are alien to hunter-gatherers, and of course, this includes women and children. Not all human children are programmed to be obedient to the same degree, that doesn’t make them asocial or antisocial per sé, but it’s not hard to see how these kinds of children can easily acquire schizoid traits once you understand their underlying evolutionary programming.
What we see in schizoid children is that they are hard to teach (because they hate following commands or even well-meant advice when they don’t see a point). Most of these kids have a strong dislike for school and its authoritarian-hierarchical organisation and many of them try to avoid attending school showing psychosomatic symptoms (I do not tire to refer to the Japanese hikikomori as the same kind of children). These kids might easily be misdiagnosed with a learning disability due to their lack of motivation. However, as is typical for children with ASD and ADHD, these kids have special interests on which they tend to hyperfocus and in which they tend to acquire almost grown-up-like expertise very quickly. If we look at the comorbidities of children with ODD, we notice all the typical comorbidities of neurodiverse children:
Sula Wolff devotes a chapter to the connection between giftedness and schizoid tendencies. She also provides famous examples from history, with a lengthy discussion of the Austrian-born philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein had a very troubled life, starting in childhood when he wanted to run away from home at age 11. Although Wittgenstein eventually did become highly successful in philosophy, he never really fit in or had anything resembling a “normal life”.
Here is a hypothesis: what if there is nothing wrong with schizoid children, but we, as parents, educators and society make them sick by forcing them to deviate from their evolutionary programming? What many alternative schools, like Montessori and Waldorf schools, do, is exactly that: let the kids follow their natural developmental trajectory without breaking them. The forager-farmer framework can explain why only some children have such strong negative reaction toward coercive education:
Developmental psychologists tend to find three different temperaments from babies to grow-ups:
Schizoid children may be nothing but extreme cases of the detached (forager) temperament. The forager analogy is likely much more than a mere metaphor as forager children (e.g. Native Americans) often have very similar struggles in a formal school setting, ranging from ADHD to defiant oppositional behaviour and suicidal ideation. Some of Wolff’s schizoid children later developed schizotypal personality disorder or full-blown schizophrenia. Thomas Boyce, who did the original research into orchid children has a sister, Mary, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 20. I don’t think it’s a coincidence. Looking at the life outcomes of her schizoid children, Wolff might have been the one to come up with the concept of orchid children.
For more on the forager-farmer framework, check out my book: The Forager-Farmer Framework: A new perspective on personality, society and culture
Originally published at http://the-big-ger-picture.blogspot.com on July 15, 2022.