Theories of autism: intro

One of the many things I’ve enjoyed about starting this blog on WordPress is that it’s given me the chance to read what other people are posting about Asperger’s and autism– including other “Aspies”!  A blog I’ve really enjoyed reading is Soph’s An Ordered Mind.  Some of her posts have reminded me things that I tend to do that I had never realized could be connected to Asperger’s syndrome– but now that I think about it, it makes perfect sense.

Anyway, a recent post on that blog gave me the idea of doing a series of posts about theories of autism.  This is the next step in the scientific process after defining the characteristics of autism or Asperger’s syndrome.  It looks at the list of characteristics in the syndrome and asks the question “Okay, so what can explain all of these characteristics?”  Most of the current theories of autism are cognitive theories, meaning that they seek to explain the outward characteristics of the syndrome by something going on in the person’s mind or brain.  How does an autistic person’s thinking differ from a non-autistic person’s?  Is there something physically different in the brain that explains this difference?

Once again, autism can look very different in different people.  I already talked about how the autistic spectrum can range from what is considered severe mental impairment (such as never speaking) to what may be considered just a quirky personality (like ranking almost every video game you’ve played– it’s now a “top 80” list, in case you were interested).  And even the idea of “low-functioning” vs. “high-functioning” autism is a vast oversimplification.

I think most scientists would love to be able to trace all of the ways autism is manifested in different people back to one clear, simple cognitive trait.  (At least I would– I love simple answers.)  Not surprisingly, we haven’t been able to do that.  : )  That’s why there are many competing theories of autism.  They all seem to explain some of the common traits of autism pretty well, but none of them explains everything.

The theory you use to explain something naturally causes you to “fill in the blanks” according to what the theory predicts.  This needs to be done cautiously, though, with an understanding that it’s possible to be wrong.  The consequences of applying a theory that is wrong, especially when applying it to people, can be very bad.  In order to provide an example of this, I want to talk about what the predominant theory of autism in the United States used to be until some time in the 1970s, and I’m afraid it’s a very sad story.

One of the leading psychiatrists in the study of autism in the U.S. was a man named Bruno Bettelheim, a Jewish native of Austria who had been imprisoned in a Nazi concentraition camp in 1938-1939 and emigrated to America when he was released.

Bettelheim believed that the cause of autism was bad parenting– that children retreated into their “own little worlds” because their parents, often particularly their mothers, lacked empathy and did not show warmth or love to their children.  The mothers of autistic children were theorized to be “refrigerator mothers,” based on a phrase Leo Kanner used in a paper.

Bettelheim became a major proponent of this theory in his writing during the 50s, 60s, and 70s.  He related the plight of an autistic child, supposedly neglected by his or her parents, to what was experienced by prisoners in the concentration camps he had been held in.

I can hardly imagine how much pain and anguish this theory caused parents of autistic children, and for the children themselves.  If a mother noticed that her child showed signs of autism, she knew that it would be seen by others as her own fault.  She might start questioning every decision she had made as a parent, wondering where she had made a mistake, or be wracked with guilt, wondering if one little mistake had made the difference.  The stress and blame could put a strain on the whole family, sometimes leading to divorce.  If she tried to get help, the response might very well be to take her child away to an institution under the thinking that his or her parents were a bad influence.

And the fact is, this theory was wrong.  Children do not become autistic because of a lack of love from their parents.  My parents have been the steadiest example at every stage of my life of what the unconditional, unfailing love of God is like– even when I was getting mixed messages of legalism or guilt from other sources, my parents have loved and encouraged me at every step.  It makes me angry to imagine that someone could accuse them of not loving me.

Thankfully, by the time my parents were raising me, Bettelheim’s theory was beginning to fall out of favor in America (though we also had no idea I could be described as “autistic” at the time, either!).  After Bettelheim committed suicide in 1990, some things came out about how he had embellished some of his stories of his experience studying autistic children, that he had falsified some of his academic credentials, and that he had plagiarized some of his writing.  He was very good at getting people to believe he was an authority on the subject, but he had some very sad struggles in his own life with self-loathing and anti-Semitism.

The “refrigerator mother” theory is still not entirely gone; it is still the most prevalent explanation for autism in some parts of the world.  In America, however, most study is now focused on finding a cognitive theory of autism, looking for some difference in the brain, mind, or thinking of a person with autism (or Asperger’s)  that explains the outward characteristics that make up the syndrome.

In some upcoming posts, I want to talk about some of these cognitive theories of autism and comment about them.  Once again, I want to stress that I am most decidedly not an expert in psychology or the human brain!  I do find it interesting to read articles about people’s attempt to figure these things out, though, and to ponder how well they seem to fit from my point of view.

Hopefully these posts will still be interesting, and if not, I can always throw in a few more video game posts!  ; )

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