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Bettelheim's Theories on Autism Under Scrutiny

 


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Bruno Bettelheim may have been renowned in his time for his theories of child development, but since he committed suicide at age 86 in 1990, his theories have come under a great deal of scrutiny. Some aspects of Bruno Bettelheim child development theory deal with autistic children; however he supported the theory first put forth by Leo Kanner, who was the first psychiatrist to document autism that blamed the condition on the mothers. Kanner and Bettelheim both supported the concept that was coined ‘refrigerator moms’ as being to blame for their children exhibiting signs of autism. They stated that the seemingly detached and cold behavior of these moms caused the children to not bond with them, leading to their autistic behaviors. These theories were popular in the 40s and 50s, but challenges to them started to appear in the 60s.

Bruno Bettelheim child development theory also was credited with helping hundreds of severely disturbed children lead normal lives. He founded the Orthogenic School a the University of Chicago where these children lived and were treated by Bettelheim. After his death, however, former students in the school told horror stories about the terrors they were forced to live with while in the school. Bettelheim was even accused of plagiarism and shoddy reporting practices by his colleagues.

Some of the things that he was accused of post-mortem, included the following:

1. Hating the parents of the children he was treating. There is evidence of him calling the parents of the students’ names like ‘crude schlemeil’ and ‘Jewish mother. ’
2. Exhibiting extreme anger, giving truth to the many complaints parents had about his behavior.
3. Secrecy and concealment, displayed when he extracted promises from family members to not ever discuss sessions with each other or other patients.
4. Anti-Semitism and lying about his findings, blaming the child's problems on Jewish heritage.

A disturbing account of Bruno Bettelheim child development theory can be found in his book, The Empty Fortress, which was published in 1967. In this book he compares the parents of autistic children to SS guards in a concentration camp. Bettelheim was a survivor of both Buchenwald and Dachau. He stated in the book that the “the precipitating factor in infantile autism is the parent's wish that his child should not exist. " This statement has caused parents of autistic children worldwide to recognize that he was a charlatan and his theories on autism were grossly incorrect. This book describes Betteleim's ‘successes’ with treating autistic children, but it is clear that those children were not autistic as none of them appeared to exhibit the very easily identified characteristics of autism.

Those characteristics, identified by Kanner in 1943, included:

1. aloofness
2. lack of reciprocity
3. absence of eye contact
4. an inability to use language to communicate effectively

The children Bettelheim described used metaphorical language in a way autistic children simply cannot. They did not display any of the classic signs of autism, nor did he allow any observers inside the school during the study. In effect, he was a fake.

Gary Pearson is an accomplished niche website developer and author.

To learn more about autism theories visit New Child Development for current articles and discussions.

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