social instinct

what is autism anyway?

BlaiseLaPsy on Twitter, in response to what I said about the Freudian concept of social instinct, raised an important point about the work of John Bowlby and Harry Harlow that appeared to provide evidence for the existence of a social instinct. I have reservations about the conclusions drawn from Bowlby’s and Harlow’s findings, and about how the term ‘instinct’ is used. First, a brief round-up of Bowlby and Harlow’s research.

Bowlby, who graduated in medicine and qualified as a psychoanalyst in the UK in the 1930s, was interested in the development of children with behavioural problems and those who had been separated from their parents due to being orphaned or hospitalized. Influenced by René Spitz’s work on orphans, Bowlby became an authority on the effects of maternal deprivation and developed Attachment theory. He concluded that for normal social development, children need a secure relationship with a primary caregiver (usually…

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refrigerator mothers

what is autism anyway?

You could be forgiven for assuming that the ‘refrigerator mothers’ theory for the cause of autism has been consigned to the wastebasket of history. That might be true for children with a formal diagnosis of autistic disorder, but parents are still often under suspicion if their children have autistic characteristics but no diagnosis, or indeed any unusual behavioural characteristics but no diagnosis. Bruno Bettelheim is often credited with inventing the term ‘refrigerator mothers’, but Leo Kanner appears to have come up with the refrigerator analogy first.

Leo Kanner

Leo Kanner

In the comment section at the end of his 1943 paper, Kanner weighs up the evidence for the possible causes of autistic behaviour. The children have schizophrenic characteristics, but their condition differs from schizophrenia because it’s been present from birth – suggesting a biological origin. On the other hand “in the whole group, there are very few really warmhearted…

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My interest in autism began when it was suggested that an autism spectrum disorder might be the cause of my son’s developmental problems. Like many parents, I found what I read about autism perplexing, and had to do a great deal of reading before what I read began to make sense. My investigations have taken me off the beaten track somewhat, have led me to question the prevalent theoretical models of autism in particular, models of so-called mental disorders in general, and have got me interested in how scientists form the conceptual models they use in research.

I knew next to nothing about autism when I began researching. The obvious place to start was with one of the many accessible introductory websites or books. What I found was that they described autism but didn’t explain it. So I moved on to more technical material I thought might help. I was surprised to find that academic books and journal papers also tended to offer descriptions rather than explanations. And that the explanations that were put forward often didn’t explain the data. I felt I must have missed something, decided to start from the beginning and read Leo Kanner’s ground-breaking paper on childhood autism published in 1943. That’s where this blog starts. I hope it provides a useful resource for others and that it stimulates discussion.