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Clinic Notes: French Politics and the Treatment of Autism

Posted Dec 09 2011 11:35am
In 1943, after American psychiatrist Leo Kanner published the first paper on autism, psychoanalytically oriented psychiatrists, blamed moms for autism. These so-called “refrigerator mothers”, who were emotionally cold and rejecting, caused a psychosis in their children which was similar to schizophrenia. (Very few autistic children actually develop adult schizophrenia.) Unfortunately, mothers at the time not only had to deal with an autistic child they also had to deal with their guilt. Psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim wrote extensively about the relationship between emotionally distant mothers and their autistic children. In the 60’s, following the publication of Bernard Rimland’s Infantile Autism many psychologists, psychiatrists, and of course neurologists, thought biological factors caused autism. I had dinner with Bettelheim in the early seventies and I tried to discuss the role of biological factors in autism with him. He refused to accept the possibility and told me in no uncertain terms to go read his books. There I would find everything I find all of the answers about autism. At the time I thought he was a relic from the past and did not think about him until I read recently that in France Bettelheim’s legacy is flourishing. Parents of children with autism are offered psychoanalysis as treatment for their children with autism despite research showing that it is ineffective. Apparently, French politics is heavily influenced by the psychoanalytic community.
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