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Understanding autism
Understanding autism

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6.3 1960s: biological and socio-emotional theories of autism

Kanner initially favoured a biological explanation of autism (an atypicality in brain function). However, he began to consider autism as a form of withdrawal from the emotional coldness he had perceived in some mothers. This socio-emotional explanation of autism was probably influenced by the early 20th century popularity of Freudian psychoanalysis in the USA, which saw children’s personalities as strongly influenced by their early experiences with their parents. Although Kanner later retracted this idea, it was enthusiastically promoted by the psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim who, in the 1960s, practised a treatment in which children with autism were separated from their parents to live in a special ‘therapeutic’ environment (Bettelheim, 1967). He described apparently dramatic improvements in the emotional adjustment, speech and behaviour of children treated in this way, but his claims were subsequently discredited.

Many parents were extremely upset by the poor parenting theory. The psychologist Bernard Rimland noted that while his wife was an affectionate mother, their son screamed constantly and inconsolably from an early age. Rimland began to collect scientific and medical evidence to challenge Bettelheim’s approach, publishing his own biological theory of causation (Rimland, 1964). He devoted his life’s work to autism, acting as an advocate for children with autism and founding the Autism Society of America in 1965.