Why do we rely upon authority – as if their words are absolute truths – when history has proven that theorists can be gravely mistaken? Arguably, we should rely on the quality of argument (and evidence) rather than the mouth from which it is uttered.
Below, we look at how the concept of autism developed (as gleaned from NeuroTribes):
In the 1940s, Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger expounded on autism, at about the same. However, their concept, attitude and perception were dissimilar.
Kanner focused only on the first years of childhood. Adults and teenagers were not considered. Instead of presenting his syndrome as a broad spectrum with widely varying manifestations, Kanner framed his patients as a strictly defined and monolithic group.
On the other hand, Asperger defined autism as a broad and inclusive spectrum that was “not at all rare”.
Asperger saw threads of genius of disability inextricably intertwined in his patients’ family histories – testifying to the complex genetic roots of their condition and the “social value of this personality type”.
In contrast, Kanner saw the shadow of the sinister figure that would become infamous in popular culture as the “refrigerator mother.”
Asperger recognised his patients’ behaviour as a specialised form of intelligence systematically acquiring data in a confusing world.
In contrast, Kanner interpreted his patients’ behaviour to be the result of poor parental treatment. These patients’ unusual fascinations and extraordinary memories were to him, a desperate bid for parental affection. He theorised that overambitious parents had “stuffed” the impressionable minds with useless information to bolster their own egos.
He would conclude “For the most part, the parents, grandparents and collaterals are persons strongly preoccupied with abstractions of a scientific, literary or artistic nature, and limited in genuine interest in people. This much is certain… In the whole group, there are very few really warmhearted fathers and mothers. Even some of the happiest marriages are rather cold and formal affairs.”
While emphasising the likelihood that autism was innate and inborn, he too suggested that these children had been pushed into mental illness by their selfish, compulsive and emotionally frosty parents. This made his syndrome a source of shame and stigma for families worldwide while sending autism research off in the wrong direction for decades.
It is likely that his perception was influenced by the concept of the “schizophrenogenic mother” This concept bloomed amidst cultural anxieties in the post World War I era, when women who had been previously subservient and self-effacing began cutting their hair short, smoking cigarettes, demanding the right to vote, and taking jobs in fields like education that had been formerly reserved for men, replacing them as primary breadwinners in many families. Hence, the insecurity with regards to changing women evolved into the “refrigerator mother”.