Saturday, January 23, 2016

Autism and Freud

One of the usual suspects sent along this book review in Slate about In A Different Key: A History of Autism. A key line jumped out.
But by the time you get to their 40th chapter, it has become clear why so many autism parents seized upon this conspiracy theory and clung to it so fiercely. The history of autism is not one in which expert opinion has covered itself in glory. (Italics mine.)
This is quite true, and likely more in the backstory of anti-vaxxers than I had supposed.  I came to the subject in the 1980's when a youngish psychiatrist, having just interviewed a charming autistic teenager sneered "We used to attribute that to cold, rejecting parenting," and an older psychologist's nostrils flared.  His private comment to me later was that sometimes it was caused by refrigerator mothers.  He was deeply Freudian via Fritz Perls, and was already rather a dinosaur and a joke amongst the staff.

So it was only later that I learned about Bruno Betelheim spreading such pain and destruction in his day, and regarded it as very past tense; and later still that I learned that his theories, and the similar ones from other ego psychologists, were still common outside of hospitals and treatment centers. They were likely still found in pockets here and there as the autism/vaccine theory came into play. There were still a few credentialed "experts" making those claims, and thus ripe as examples of how all experts should be dismissed by those who "knew better."  Especially as the "know betters" tend strongly to natural treatments and solutions while psychiatry has tended to focus on medication, which just confirms the anti-vaxxers prejudice against them.

Reflecting on Betelheim and the other experts of the day I thought - not for the first time - how thoroughly suffused all of brain and personality sciences were with the theories of Freud. Virtually everything traced back to him, even in opposition - for the opponents, too, swallowed many of his assumptions whole.

Psychiatry had not been going in a grand theoretical direction before Freud, but was operating on observation, cataloging, measuring, and describing, as were the other branches of this new idea of Scientific Medicine, less than a century old.  But somehow buried sexual conflicts, competition with parents, and unconscious motives were exactly what European, and very quickly thereafter American society wanted to be true, and so embraced them.  A madness of its own, really, as the influence in many other fields was enormous.

So I have to wonder - is there anyone who has caused as much human misery in America over the last century as the well-meaning Sigmund Freud? Stalin and Hitler are likely untouchable in European damage, but their effect on Americans was more indirect.


james said...

John Dewey?

Retriever said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Retriever said...

I should clarify: autism was not the problem for us. The co-occurring stuff was. But the point about outdated therapeutic theories persisting in the culture and leading to human misery is valid...

RichardJohnson said...

Coincidentally, Bruno Bettelheim spoke at my college freshman convocation. Reason: his son was a freshman at the school- on the same floor on my dorm, but on another wing. I never talked with Bettelheim's son, though I knew him by sight. I did read about Bettelheim's cloth monkey approach in my freshman psych course.