Feral Children, Research Paper Example

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Research Paper

Because stories of feral children are so rare, they have been the object of much fascination as well as misunderstanding. Feral children, also known as “wild children,” are defined as children who, from a very young age, have lived isolated from human contact, are unfamiliar with appropriate human behavior, and have not been exposed to language (Grice, 2006.) When they are discovered, they frequently demonstrate common characteristics: they are not interested in a normal human diet, instead eating grass and other wild food; they can tolerate extreme temperatures; and they have difficulty establishing and maintaining interactions with people. Typically, as they are not exposed to language at the developmental stage when their brain would normally be stimulated by human speech, they are unable to talk or only have minimal ability for speech (Minister, 2009.)

This paper will discuss the cases of Oxana Malaya and Dani Lierow, two feral children who were discovered and rescued from their situations and have demonstrated limited abilities to function normally in society. These specific cases raise the continuing debate over nature versus nurture, i.e. whether biological factors or environmental causes are the predominant influences affecting personality development. In the case of feral children, it appears that nurture, or rather the lack of a caring environment, significantly impacts the physical and social development of the person involved.

Oxana Malaya was rejected by her family as a toddler and left to live outside in a kennel with the family dogs in a village in the Ukraine. For five years, she survived by eating raw meat, scraps and other bits of food found on the ground. Because she was completely surrounded by dogs rather than people, her behavior was a complete imitation of that of her canine companions: she crawled on all fours, barked and growled like a dog, her tongue hanging out, panting, and drinking water by putting her face under the faucet and lapping it up like another animal. Oxana’s parents were alcoholics who left her outside one night, leading her to crawl inside the dog kennel in the yard, and for five years after that, no one looked for her so that she completely lacked any human contact; the little amount of speech that she had developed as a toddler was quickly forgotten because of the isolation she experienced. Her ability to talk is permanently impaired because she was discovered far beyond the age when the brain is able to regain those skills to a fully functional level (Grice, 2006.)

At the age of eight, a neighbor contacted the authorities to report that a child was living with animals, and Oxana was discovered and taken into the custody of the state, where she received evaluations and help from doctors and caretakers. Ultimately, she went to live in a home for the mentally disabled, where she has been able to achieve a minimum level of socialization and speech, while remaining significantly limited emotionally, socially, and physically. When Oxana was filmed by a television crew, she was found to have developed a certain degree of language skills that were characterized by flatness, oddness and a lack of rhythm and cadence that usually characterizes normal speech by causing it to sound lively and animated. Instead, her speech is almost robotic, certainly a direct result of not having had normal social interactions during the formative years when her brain would have been processing language and human interaction. She is still capable of making noises and acting physically like a dog, the result of the imprinting that took place between Oxana and her canine companions.

In addition to language challenges, Oxana has been left with abnormal motor skills, appearing uncoordinated and tomboyish; she has an odd stomping gait, squints and is missing several teeth (Ibid.). Behaviorally, Oxana also exhibits unusual actions that are reminiscent of the canines with which she grew up, such as having the tendency to hide things which are given to her, like a dog would bury a bone. Although she is small in stature–only five feet tall–when she casually jokes with people there is a menacing quality to her as well as an obvious hint of brute strength that is characteristic of a wild animal. After being tested for cognitive abilities, Oxana has been found to have the mental capacity of a six-year-old as well as a significantly low threshold for boredom; she is able to count, but cannot add numbers, and is unable to read or spell her name correctly. She cannot tell time, although she wears a watch that she is extremely proud of as well is being fascinated by it. A defining quality of being human is being able to speak, but it is generally accepted that if a child does not learn to talk by the age of five, the brain is no longer able to take advantage of the short window of opportunity necessary to develop language skills (Grice, 2006.)

Oxana was able to learn to speak again to some degree, likely because she had a minimal degree of speech before she was abandoned. At the orphanage where she was placed, she was taught to walk upright, to eat using her hands, and to communicate, albeit primitively, like a human being. Nevertheless, she is still at risk to revert to performing behaviors such as barking and isolating in the woods, and has to be frequently reinforced to help her continue to engage in more appropriate behaviors and speech. Interestingly, she appears to demonstrate little interest in the dogs that have been in her current environment, and has interactions with people although they are nonconventional and relatively superficial. Undoubtedly, the lack of contact she had with human beings in her early life has had a permanent impact on her ability to be social with people.

In another case of a feral child, Dani Lierow was discovered at the age of six living in a filthy room in her mother’s home in Florida, bitten by roaches, wearing a dripping diaper, unable to speak or to maintain eye contact (Wilson, 2008.) It was evident that she had been alone in that dirty, lonely room for most of the time during her first five or six years of life. Tremendous neglect by her mother resulted in a significant halt in Dani’s development to the degree that she was completely unable to talk and making it unlikely that she would ever be able to live a normal life or independently. Following her being discovered by detectives, she has lived in hospitals and foster homes until being adopted by the Lierow family, consisting of Dani’s new parents and a brother. With a great deal of help, Dani has been able to be toilet trained and no longer wears diapers, and is able to feed herself, although she still walks on tiptoes and cannot brush her teeth. She is able to sit still for periods of approximately 30 minutes at a time, watching cartoons, and is able to speak a few words, although she apparently understands almost all speech.

With the aid of speech therapy as well as horseback riding therapy, Dani has slowly made progress in the areas of communication and socialization. Her loving environment as well is the extra services which she has been given have clearly made a significant difference in her progress, although her early experiences of deprivation and lack of stimulation through neglect have certainly left her with little or no foundation on which to build a personality structure. During the formative years, she had spent so much time by herself that she withdrew from the world as a means of coping with her devastating isolation. She was unable to connect with people, having a condition called “environmental autism” by a psychiatrist who examined her (DeGregory, 2011.)

At age 13, after nearly seven years with her adoptive family, Dani has grown tall and although she still appears to be haunted by the past, she is able to maintain eye contact with other people. She is sometimes able to pay attention to what people are saying, but other times she appears to be absent. She is unable to read, although she can hold a book and turn the pages. Although the people around her constantly talk to her, she doesn’t talk at all. It is speculated that possibly, because her brain was never stimulated adequately when she needed to learn to communicate, that area of the brain simply cannot be rejuvenated (Ibid.)

The cases discussed here, that of Oxana and Dani, reinforce the idea that it is socialization that makes people human. When appropriate and adequate interaction with people does not occur, children adapt to the environment in which they find themselves. In the case of Oxana, she was surrounded by dogs and it was their noises and behaviors that she learned: eating raw meat, walking on all fours, barking and drinking water by putting her mouth under a tap. It is difficult to say how much of a factor Oxana’s biological givens played in her ability to adapt and survive, but what is obvious is that her environment was a critical factor in her development, or lack thereof. Although as an adult, she has been able to change her speech and behavior to a degree that is more socially acceptable, under no definition can her speech and actions be considered to be that of a normal young person.

In the case of Dani, her environment was one of nearly complete isolation and lack of the stimulation necessary to develop the skills needed for human behavior. Because her surroundings were so devoid of human warmth, cleanliness and interaction, she has been unable to achieve the typical developmental steps required to fully participate in a family or other social system. She has certainly made gains, which would have been impossible had she remained in her original environment, and which can largely be attributed to her current home life, a loving family, and various medical and other helping professionals who have showered her with treatment and attention. Nevertheless, because she doesn’t engage in any speech at all, her early environment has so far proven to be the most devastating factor that explains her current limitations and the weak prognosis for an independent future.

References

DeGregory, L. (2011, August 21). Three Years Later, “The Girl in the Window” Learns to Connect. Retrieved June 22, 2012, from Tampa Bay Times: http://www.tampabay.com/features/humaninterest/article1186860.ece

Grice, E. (2006, July 17). Cry of an Enfant Sauvage. Retrieved June 21, 2012, from The Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/3653890/Cry-of-an-enfant-sauvage.html

Minister, C. (2009, March 12). Feral Children: Dani Lierow, Danielle Crockett and Oxana Malaya. Retrieved June 22, 2012, from Yahoo Voices: http://voices.yahoo.com/feral-children-dani-lierow-danielle-crockett-oxana-2823975.html

Wilson, M. (2008, August 10). Everyone Wants to Help “The Girl in the Window”. Retrieved June 22, 2012, from Tampa Bay Times: http://www.tampabay.com/features/humaninterest/article763905.ece

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