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Sunday, July 13, 2008

Bruno Bettleheim and Autism

At one point, autism was thought to be caused by lack of love and attention from the parents, particularly the mother. Bruno Bettleheim was the man behind this erroneous theory of the “refrigerator mother”. Bruno was supposedly a Jewish psychiatrist who survived Nazi concentration camps in WWII.

However, it was later proven that he wasn’t a psychiatrist. He was in the construction business. His charismatic and commanding presence led others to believe him when he claimed that he was a psychiatrist. It was in the camps that he developed his theory about parents of individuals with autism by comparing the relationship between parent and child with autism to that of the Nazi officer and camp prisoner. He speculated that just as the concentration camp prisoners withdrew and became socially aloof and selectively mute due to the cruel and unloving situation that they were in, that the same could be assumed of children with autism. He drew his conclusion from his own experience, not a study.

He later noted that the parents of his autistic patients were “cold” and “detached” in his office. It is my experience that during diagnosis, parents can feel helpless and depressed due to their concern for their children. I know I was. However, Bettleheim concluded that this was why the child was autistic; their parents were cold and uncaring. However, I believe that there was a causal relationship. Bruno just had it backwards: the parents were aloof and depressed because their children were not developing correctly and they didn’t know how to help. Parents of autistic children were to suffer from this misunderstanding for years to come. Many families had their children taken away and put in homes because the parents were believed to be detrimental to their own children’s health.

Luckily, this myth has been almost completely dispelled. There are still plenty of emotional and psychological challenges that face parents of autists today. It is very frightening that a disturbed individual who was posing as a medical authority stigmatized parents and destroyed families for several generations to come with his hateful hypotheses. Many people interested in autism still aren’t aware of Bruno’s actual background. The hurt that this man caused by his speculations didn’t stop at just tearing families apart and causing immense guilt and grief to parents.

He also ran a rehabilitation program for children with autism. Many of the children weren’t technically autistic. He hit and verbally abused the children, according to accounts that several of the children corroborated after release from the program. By taking in children that didn’t actually have autism and “curing” them of their autism, Bruno gave the appearance of knowing what he was doing.

Of course some of the children evaluated after treatment were found not to have autism. It wasn’t Bettelheim’s doing though; they didn’t have autism to begin with. Bettleheim’s methods were spurious at best. The man ruined lives and caused a greater stigma for a disability than it already had for his own personal gain. I think that there are some lessons to be had from this. I am not suggesting that medical practitioners in general are frauds or fakes, but rather that it is a good idea to check credentials and question authority when something doesn’t seem right. I am glad that Bettleheim’s ideas have largely been dispelled, but I am sickened that they gained such notoriety in the first place.

(This writing also appears on Associated Content :

Mixed Blessings

When I first suspected that something wasn’t right about my daughters, I was nervous and anxious. When I realized they both had autism I was depressed and angry.
I love language and reading, so when my twins were a little over a year old I started trying games that would increase vocabulary, teach proper pronoun usage, and build conversation skills. I know that’s a tall order for a one year old, but the games were developed by speech and language experts.
It was then that I realized my daughters didn’t have the fundamental skills to play these games. Their attention would wander to anything else remotely interesting in the room.
It was also around this time that I realized my daughters were no longer using the words they used to know. No more “mom,” “cup,” “cookie,” or “ball.”
It’s been almost six years since autism became part of our lives. I’ve learned many things and met many wonderful people through my daughters’ autism that I would never have otherwise.
The biggest thing I’ve learned is tolerance and understanding. If I see another parent with a child who is throwing a tantrum or having a meltdown I don’t stare. I don’t make loud remarks about how I’d handle the situation differently. I know how embarrassing and frustrating it is to be treated as a spectacle in public.
A trip to the grocery store is all it takes to remind me of the ignorance of disabilities that the public in general has. If I can help on person understand my daughters and autism better, I hope that it may save another parent of a child with a disability a rude remark or stare from a stranger.
I’ve also learned that as long as I’m not intruding on someone else’s rights, I shouldn’t care what others think of me. If someone sees my children and me out and think that we act weird, oh well. I can’t educate everyone I meet everyday about autism.
Autism has been a mixed blessing; thought I’ve gained a tolerance and understanding that I may not have learned without autism, I know my daughters will face difficulties due to autism. Though as long as I’m alive, I’ll share the blessing of knowledge, tolerance, and understanding my daughters have given me.
(Note: I wrote this about two years ago; my daughters were diagnosed over eight years ago...)
(This writing also appears on Associated Content :

A visit to the library

“Shhh,” said the security guard hovering over my daughter and me. Like I hadn’t thought of that.

We were in the library for only a couple of minutes when my daughter decided to throw herself on the floor and start screaming, “Car! Car please!” This might not be that unusual for a two or three year old; my daughter is nine.

We’ve been patrons of this particular library for about six years. Most employees know that both of my daughters have autism. They are usually very helpful.
I’m not sure what this guy thought I was trying to do, as I wrapped my arms around my daughter and tried to get her to walk out of the library. I had even been shushing her myself. Yet there he stood as I repeatedly tried to carry, coax, or cajole my daughter out of the library’s otherwise peaceful atmosphere. Shushing us, but offering no help.

I finally was able to get her on her feet and hustle her out the door like a hostage taker, with my fingers pointed into her back instead of a gun. The security guard didn’t follow us out of the library, for which I was thankful. I’d had enough of his help for one day.

This wasn’t the first time that I’d had this particular security guard’s help either. On a previous visit to the library I had both of my daughters with me and one of them decided that she didn’t want to leave when I said it was time to go. She wriggled out of my grip and crawled quickly to the video section, where she promptly began to knock video cassettes off the bottom shelf.
I couldn’t get my other daughter to come with me to get the video vandal, so I left her standing by the returns desk while I ran to reshelf the videos and retrieve my first born. While I did that, Lotus thought it would be a great time to check out what is behind the counter in the employee section. Luckily for me there was a nice lady working at the counter and she kept Lotus out of things while I half dragged Celest toward the return area.

The employee offered to help me out to my car; she knew both of the girls had autism and was being genuinely helpful and compassionate. This is when the security guard decided that he had to escort us out with the employee. I know it is probably just a standard cover-your-a** policy, but I found it both humorous and insulting. What did he think I was going to do, mug the lady in the parking lot? Celest was more menacing looking than me, so maybe he thought she was going to try something.

I guess I should be happy that the library employees don’t lock the doors when they sees us coming, but I can be an ingrate sometimes. For now I’ve decided that it’s just easier for me to go to the library by myself. I’ll save the family trips for when I’m feeling feisty and energetic.

(This article also appears on Associated Content :