Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Bettelheim on autism - why do people still support him?

Bruno Bettelheim was perhaps the most influential theorist promoting psychoanalytic interpretations of autism. Bettelheim rose to prominence as director of the University of Chicago’s Orthogenic School for disturbed children from 1944 to 1978. He rejected Kanner’s conclusions positing a biological role in the etiology in autism and was convinced that autism was caused by “refrigerator” mothers. According to Bettelheim, autistic symptoms are viewed as defensive reactions against cold and detached mothers. These unloving mothers were sometimes assumed to be harbouring “murderous impulses” toward their children. For example, in his book The Empty Fortress, Bettelheim (1967) wrote that one autistic girl’s obsession with the weather could be explained by dissecting the word to form “we/eat/her”, indicating that she was convinced that her mother, and later others, would “devour her”. *facepalm*

After his suicide (thank goodness) in 1990, stories began to emerge that tarnished Bettelheim’s reputation. Several individuals claimed abuse at the hands of the famous doctor when they were at the Orthogenic School. Darnton wrote that he was “sadistic and out of control [towards his patients]”. Furthermore, information emerged that Bettelheim often lied about his background and training. For example, although he frequently claimed to have studied under Freud in Vienna, Bettelheim possessed no formal training in psychoanalysis whatsoever, and instead held a degree in philosophy. Also, Bettelheim claimed that 85% of his patients at the Orthorgenic School were cured after treatment; however, most of the children were not autistic and the case reports he presented in his books were often fabrications.

What surprises me is that even today, despite a complete lack of evidence, there are still people who support Bettelheim. Psychoanalytic theories such as this still exist. Why? 

I’m definitely with Bernard Rimland’s when he insists: “Autism is a biological disorder, not an emotional illness. Refuse psychotherapy, psychoanalysis and intensive counselling. These approaches are useless” (1994). 


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