Unhinging from Theory: Autism and Opinions

Opinion.jpgSometimes, disconnecting our theories from our healing practices and clinical understanding can be a good thing to do. When Bruno Bettelheim convinced many psychotherapists and psychological theoreticians that autism was caused by bad parenting in the form of “refrigerator mothers,” he was stuck on a theory. He was proven wrong, but it took some time for these clinicians to let go of their theory and see that the cause of autism was not known.

For that duration, we can thank Bettelheim for causing an extraordinary amount of suffering because of his unscientific, though well-meaning, thinking. Countless mothers were blamed for their children’s autism. What a thing to live with! Especially given the brutal way he would tongue-lash some of these poor souls. At least he was irrational and inventive enough that some of those people could see through him.

Running from Fire by Nazi Saboteur by Troy Peters, 1945 (NARA)By the way, the theory wasn’t very scientific. Because autistic children reminded him of the Nazi concentration camp internees that he observed while himself an internee, he decided that both populations had to have the same cause for the behavior. Since the internees were emotionally abused, then the autistic children had to have been abused. Since the mothers were emotionally disconnected from the children, then it was their coldness that was the abuse. Now we know that it is very difficult to be emotionally connected to an autistic child, even if you’re the mother. Also, abuse of autistic children is more common than with normal children, most likely because the parental instincts triggered by normal children are not invoked. Still, emotional abuse long ago was proven not to be the cause.

This wouldn’t be complete without pointing out that Bettelheim’s biographer, in a painfully detailed 475 page book reviewed in the New York Times, gives an overabundance of proof that Bettelheim was a pathological liar, and that his original research supporting his theories of autism was wither vastly inflated, or simply invented.

Theories are like bellybuttons, everybody has one. Why the abundance? In the absence of real knowledge, we’ll improvise enough to feel important. Besides, suspending our opinions and really investigating is work. What would you rather do, feel important and masterful, or work? What? You found ways to have it all? Excellent! Pass it on!

DharmaI’ll be writing more about unhinging ourselves from theories. It’s one of the most important topics in science and healing. Think on this. Given the power of truly troubled people to have a great impact in the field of psychotherapy at various points in history, how well are we doing now? Can you think of any “elephants in the living room” in the form of persuasive, influential people, who may be living a lie? Not that I want to start yet another witch hunt. I just want to encourage critical thinking, clinical effectiveness, and intellectual honesty.

And if that isn’t enough, how about this modern-day koan: What is the difference between honesty and freedom? Is freedom the condition that allows you to be honest? Is honesty the act that creates freedom? How are these speculations relevant to the situations in your life where you can promote healing in yourself and others?

  • I have to say that calling Bettelheim “well-meaning” strikes me as roughly equal to calling Mengele “fun-loving.”

    Bruno Bettelheim was a lying, misogynist sack of hucksterism who abused the children in his care and caused bitter pain and suffering to thousands of families.

  • Joe

    Mercury causes Autism. In Texas children who live down wind of cold-fired power plants get autism. And children who get vaccines have autism.

  • Linda

    Mercury causes Autism. In Texas children who live down wind of cold-fired power plants get autism. And children who get vaccines have autism.

    The article discusses theories, and you have just presented two, both without actual, down on the table in front of all proof. Neither warrant the blanket “this is what causes autism” statement that you made.

    I have a twenty-one-year-old son with High-Functioning Autism who would beg to differ. He insists that Autism is a personality type, not a disease and takes great offense at the suggestion of “curing” autism. His words to me were that it smacked of genocide. I reminded him that parents of adult autistic children still in diapers might tend to disagree with him.

    Naturally, given that he’s a straight-A college honors student at a Big 10 university (mom gives herself pat on back) he has no room to talk, but still I give his theory as much weight as the next person’s, more so because he actually IS autistic!

    Just throwing out something to think about. 🙂

  • Patti Wilson-Herndon

    If I may, Linda-mom? I’d be honored to add a pat to your back. Thank you for your thought-provoking pitch. Continued successes to you and your gifted son…

    Thank you, Robert! Great reading!

    Unhinging ourselves from theories… one of the most important topics in science and healing.

    I think you’re spot on.

    How are these speculations relevant to the situations in your life where you can promote healing in yourself and others.

    … Indeed ;0)

  • Sarah Hammond

    Linda. Yes, those of us who have children with autism who must pay upwards of $50,000 a year to send their children to school because the public school system is not able to educate our children properly would argue that autism is not “personality type.” Ever consider the possibility that your son doesn’t actually have autism but simply has a personality disorder? It is theories like yours that are doing a disservice to families like mine who are doing everything we can to teach our children to simply communicate their basic needs to their parents, much less send their children to Big 10 university.

  • Sis2lis

    Thanks, Linda, for recognizing that all autistics are not created equal. As the elder sister of a 53 year old autistic woman who wore diapers into adulthood, and who requires 24/7 supervisory care, I would be very happy to see a cure. I doubt your son would want to care for someone like my sister, with her irrational behavior, tantrums, and obsessions, and you might point that out to him the next time he airs his theory of autism as purely a personality type.

    And thank you, Robert Yourell, for a thought provoking essay. It is also true that those who are convinced that thimerosal and/or vaccines are the primary cause of autism are too fixated on their pet theories just as Bettelheim was. Like cancer, autism is very complex and will probably turn out to have multiple causes, as much as we might like to think otherwise.

  • The harm of misguided theories lives on. As an advocate for improved eating disorder care I feel as if most of the ED treatment world is still living in an era that parents of autistic children and schizophrenic patients have largely been freed of.

    Accountability is needed. That unhinging you describe so well is brave stuff. And overdue!

  • Grammar

    Defense mechanisms are unconscious; the one we call Denial is tricky, in that on the surface of it, it’s simply refuting, but what’s really going on is that the person (or the system or the society) doesn’t know it’s lying. (Don’t Even kNow I Am Lying). Groups within groups fall victim of convenient beliefs, and appear “evil” to the rest of us.

  • Ian Kemmish

    Surely honesty and freedom are at best orthogonal? But one can go further – honesty requires rare self-discipline, of which a perception of freedom is usually the enemy.

    I’m middle-aged, but I feel fairly confident that if I were a child now, I would be diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. It certainly feels to me that it’s a personality type, and that the drive to treat it with expensive means has more to do with exploitation than the Hippocratic oath. I’d rather be left as I am. But then I’d probably feel that whatever the cause – over here, for example, we have deaf activists who are campaigning for the right to choose a deaf child via IVF.

    And it’s not too many generations since some aspects of Asperger’s, at least, were seen as desirable and called “having a stiff upper lip”….

  • Yet another member of the mercury militia who doesn’t read scientific papers. I hate you people, I really do, because misunderstanding of science is going to lead to the downfall of this country.

    I’m a neuroscience student. I know several researchers of autism spectrum disorders on my campus, and having read much of the literature myself, I can safely say that autism is not caused by mercury. For one, autism is not always detectable, even in children who are NOT vaccinated, until they are older; for two, it is (to my knowledge) a genetic disorder; for three, autism is most certainly NOT a personality type because the neural differences between someone who has autism and someone without autism are very significant, but depending on one’s level of functioning, one can treat it either as a disorder or a simple difference of wiring (Temple Grandin, for example, is a prominent professor of agriculture; she has autism).

  • Well I am an autism researcher too, and autistic to boot, and I read all the papers, so I will say to Katherine, you tell me any aspect of behaviour (neurotypical or otherwise) that does not derive from neurology and differentiate the ontology of personality and the ontology of autistic difference, for I will tell you what you are doing is social construction. Left handedness is neurologically configured, so is the way you adapt to language, vision, all of what is called perception. All of this very complex neurology goes into the melting pot and comes out with the myriad of individual configurations we call human.

    I am not saying all neurological configurations are optimal for the environments and societies we live in, they are not, but autism is nothing special, it is part of being human, we are not the robots and the chimpanzees Stephen Pinker would have us as. Not some kind of second rate not quite human, to be eliminated.

  • I never said autistic people were robots. There is a chance I have Asperger’s, myself. I know several people who have Asperger’s and they are, frankly, just as much of a person as everybody else.

    I do not see why you think my post is social construction. Nowhere did I explicitly state that autism was solely a ‘bad thing’ – autism, as far as I have read (though I’ll defer to you and the other autism researchers I know in cases of difference in the literature), has several specific characteristics that constitute a differential diagnosis of it in the DSM-IV. However, I am aware that autistic spectrum disorders are very difficult to diagnose; I have firsthand experience with this myself as someone who is profoundly gifted who was thought to have Asperger’s as well (and, as I said, I have a good chance of having Asperger’s).

    Yes, all of this is neurologically configured; I agree with you wholeheartedly on that. I am of the camp that believes more research has to be done on autistic spectrum disorders before one can properly even call them ‘disorders’, if they are such at all – as I said, autism, for example, affects people to different degrees. Temple Grandin is an example of someone who is autistic who has accomplished much. I believe, however, that one has to stop considering it a personality difference when something is of such a degree that it causes problems for some people (not all, definitely, but many). As I said, so far as I have seen it’s a difference of wiring, and whether it affects someone deleteriously or is simply a difference in personality depends on the person.

    I remain firm on my first point, though, for posters that seem to have problems with this: VACCINES DO NOT CAUSE AUTISM. AUTISM IS GENETIC.

  • What is a genetic disorder though? I think there is a lot of confusion in the lay mind between what is inheritable to some degree, and what is genetically caused. The public is led to believe that there is a simple gene that will code for x, y or z, and once this gene is discovered and can be turned off, x, y or z will not occur.

    It is certainly not the case in autism that there is a single gene that could encode for or explain all of the traits of autism.

    Indeed you could not even say at the present whether there is a specific set of genes which if present in the same configuration will always cause autism.

    What is far more likely is that autism is the complex interaction of various neurological systems and can be arrived at by several routes. Autism is the confluence or admixture of a variety of traits, there may be any number of predisposing genes that give rise to each of the traits.

    I think it can be looked at as the analogy of a wave when it breaks upon the shore. Where and how did that wave arise?

    The complexity of it can be modelled mathematically using chaos theory. I think that autism will never be fully understood until there are sophisticated mathematical ways of mapping brain development, and equally mapping each region into it’s own separate genetic components.

    I go with the theories of autism being a different cognitive style , rather than personality, however at a pragmatic level, that cognitive style runs deep throughout a lifetimes experiences and cannot be separated from personality.

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  • kscastings68

    Thanks, Linda, for recognizing that all autistics are not created equal.

Robert A. Yourell, MA

Robert A. Yourell, MA, has extensive experience in the mental health and social services dating back to 1975. His training includes Ericksonian communication and hypnosis with John Grinder, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing with Francine Shapiro, PhD, Body Integrative Psychotherapy with Jack Rosenberg, PhD, and solution-focused psychotherapy. He provides free audio experiences on his site that include bilateral sound and Shimmering.

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