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 autistics by comparing the relationship between parent and autistic child 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 autistic children. 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 autistic children. 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 weren’t actually autistic 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.

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