Wild children: childhood without contact with humanity
"The young man was found lost, in a wild state and full of scars from animal bites. He seemed immune to the heat and the cold, he broke the clothes that people tried to put on him and he refused to eat cooked food, consuming only raw foods. "
It is possible that this description reminds some fictional characters like Tarzan or Mowgli of the Jungle Book.
However, on this occasion they refer to Víctor de Aveyron , one of the best known cases of "wild child". This young man was found by hunters at the end of 1799 in a forest of the city of Aveyron, with the characteristics described above, also highlighting a large scar on the neck probably made with a knife or sharp object, which suggests that they could have tried to end his life.
The case of Víctor de Aveyron
The boy in question had been sighted on multiple occasions climbing the trees , running on all fours, drinking in streams and eating acorns and roots, until finally he was captured when during the winter he approached farms in search of food.
The doctors of the time thought that the boy suffered from mental retardation by not understanding or responding to language. Victor would be adopted by a teacher called Itard , who considered that the infant only had a deficit in the development of language due to the long period that the child was supposed to have subsisted in solitude.
While a woman called Ms. Guerin would take care of the child, Itard would try to educate and reintroduce into society the little wild child, trying to teach him the language, moral behavior and social norms.
However, despite dedicating long years to this task and the importance of the work of Itard (its methods were taken into account a posteriori by educational methodologies such as Montesori), great successes were not achieved, abandoning the attempt of education and leaving the child under the guardianship of Mrs. Guerin. Victor would die at forty years of age, still under his care.
What is a wild child?
Victor and many others like him are considered wild children; This category includes those infants who have been isolated from society for a prolonged period of their childhood and / or adolescence, either because they have been abandoned in a wild environment, because they have been lost or because they have been detained or confined for his childhood or puberty.
These children present serious alterations in both behavioral and cognitive aspects , product of the lack of acquisition of knowledge and skills that allow coexistence and participation in the social life of a community.
It should be noted that there is a certain variability in the cases observed. Within the wild children you can find three basic types : children who have lived a long time in solitude (as in the case of Victor de Aveyron), those who survived in a hostile environment being cared for by other animal species, and infants who have been mistreated and confined for a large part of their lives.
Characteristics of wild children
One of the most obvious symptoms is the absence or little development of the language . Although the different authors have disagreed about whether human language is a fully learned skill or there are already the necessary structures for it from birth, it has been evidenced the existence of periods of learning in which there is an explosive development of some capabilities like the language. These periods are called critical period.
In the case of language, experts have pointed out that the critical period occurs between three and four years of age . In this way, if at this stage the appropriate stimulation is not given, the child's abilities will not develop correctly, dragging down all their evolution and making it difficult to adapt to the social environment. It would be affected not only the linguistic capacities but also the representational, relational ones and even the own construction of the personal identity.
In addition to the lack of language, another of the main shortcomings of these children and in turn the one that explains most of the rest is the lack of socialization . Because through social interaction you learn and exchange information with others, it is possible to develop perspectives and ways of thinking and acting that enrich the personal repertoire and contribute to improving the adaptation to the environment.
Due to their deficient or no socialization, wild children are not able to participate in society, acting according to what they have learned throughout their lives in the habitat in which they have grown up.That is, their attitudes and abilities make them capable of subsisting in the environment in which they have grown, but they are not applicable to community life.
Another element common to most cases is the avoidance of human contact. Both physically and emotionally, these children try to get away as far as possible from their peers, which has made the treatment of cases difficult in the first few bars.
This fact is explained if one takes into account that, in addition to the fact that they have not had contact with human beings in a long time or that this has been aversive, these children have been set apart against their will from the environment in which they have grown up , and even on the occasions when they have been adopted by animals they have been able to see their savior die at the hands of humans.
Other cases of known wild children
In addition to the case of Victor, described above, there are a large number of examples. Next we will examine the history of two more of them.
Amala and Makala, the wolf girls of India
On October 9, 1920, two frightened and dirty girls watched in horror at an armed crowd gathered around them, being protected from the crowd by a she-wolf. The people around them, inhabitants of the village of Godamuri (in India), opened fire on the she-wolf, and had it not been for the intervention of a local reverend, Joseph Amrito Lal Singh, they would have ended the lives of the girls Believing that it was about spirits.
Both girls were trapped and taken with great resistance on their part to an orphanage run by the Reverend , where he and his family would try to reeducate them and reintroduce them into society.
The symptoms of isolation
From the beginning, the girls showed a high level of aggression toward human beings, biting and scratching those who tried to approach them and allowing only their own mutual company and that of the local dogs. They would tear off the clothes that were put on them and show difficulties in staying upright. Both girls walked on all fours , apparently without perceiving cold or heat. His interaction with others was limited to grunting, which made the socialization very complicated to achieve. Both detested cooked food, eating only raw meat on the patio floor.
Like the wolves that had cared for them, both girls tended to sleep during the day and make nightlife. It was common to hear them howl during the night and they seemed to have a slightly more developed sense of smell and night vision than usual.
Unfortunately, a year after entering the orphanage, Amala, the three-year-old girl, would die of dysentery. He had to forcefully separate his sister from the mortal remains, reacting it with tears and a great sadness. With the passage of time Kamala would begin to make small advances in terms of socialization and language acquisition, acquiring about 30 words, and starting to walk upright. He eventually managed to communicate with the Reverend and his family through monosyllabic words , until finally the little girl died of typhus with 15 years of age.
The case of Genie
Like Víctor de Aveyron, the case of Genie It is one of the best known of "wild boy", this time located in the state of California. The girl in question, born in the 50s with severe health problems (incompatible RH, congenital hip dislocation and possible intellectual disability), was imprisoned by her father in a small room and grew tied to a chair during the day and caged during the night from twenty months to thirteen years of age, with a forced diet based on baby food and other similar mistreatments.
It was not until she was thirteen years old that Genie's mother, along with her, managed to escape from her husband. After a few weeks he went to the welfare office, and subsequently the police took the girl into his custody. The girl showed absence of speech, malnutrition and behavioral difficulties such as compulsive masturbation.
As with Víctor de Aveyron and the sisters Amala and Kamala, Genie was treated by a group of doctors, linguists and psychologists in order to reeducate it and integrate it into society. The one of Genie is the case of wild child that more evolution has showed, being this young person able to create phrases and to relate words, although with an incorrect sentence structure.
Although the intervention did have some success, the Mental Health Association The United States considered that progress was not enough and finally decided to suspend the budget for the girl, who would end up going through different adoptive families. Unfortunately, in some of them he also suffered abuse, because of which he suffered a regression to his previous state and stopped talking again.
Nowadays Genie lives in an adult care institution , without transcending more information about her due to ethical considerations about her privacy.
Brain plasticity and the critical period
Childhood is a stage of life in which we are especially sensitive to changes, to the marks that the environment leaves on us. This means, among other things, that what during the first years of our lives we have a unique ability to learn and to detect patterns in all those experiences that happen to us. This is reflected very well in the way in which we begin to learn and to internalize a language, for example; a technically very complicated task that, nevertheless, we dominate with amazing rapidity being children.
However, this ability to learn, linked to a neurological phenomenon known as cerebral plasticity, has a double edge. As in our childhood we are very sensitive to what happens to us, we are also sensitive to what does not happen to us. Specifically, the fact of not having learned to master the language and to socialize with other human beings who dominate it makes that, when we reach an age threshold, the so-called critical period, we become incapable of learning to use language.
At that moment our brain he no longer has the ability to modify himself in such a profound way as to internalize such a complex learning. In addition, this affects all our cognitive abilities, since in a certain way the language influences the way in which we think. In the case of wild children, this is clear.
The circumstances that have surrounded this type of cases have been the breeding ground of numerous investigations that tried to find out if someone growing up in isolation could clarify the effect of education and the influence of society or if characteristics such as language are innate or acquired being explored multiple facets of these children's lives.
In any case, it is essential to always bear in mind ethical considerations of the exhaustive investigation of this phenomenon, since they can suppose a great damage for the children and their integrity.
- Hutton, J. H. (1940): "Wolf-children." In: Folklore, transactions of the folk-lore society, vol. 51, No. 1, p. 9-31, London: William Glaisher Ltd., 1940.
- Itard, J. M. G. (1801). De l'education d'un homme sauvage ou des premiers developpemens physiques et moraux du jeuneççç sauvage de l'Aveyron. Goujon Paris.
- Lenneberg, E. H. and Lenneberg, E. (eds.) (1975): Fundamentals of language development, Editorial Alliance.
- Rymer, Russ (1999). Genie: a Scientific Tragedy. Harper Paperbacks; Reprint edition (January 12, 1994).