Tag Archives: Bruno Bettelheim

An Autistic Child is Murdered

Another Autistic child has been murdered by one of his parents.  This time it is a six-year old, little boy named London McCabe.  London joins a growing list of Autistic children who have been murdered in recent years.

A psychology professor who runs an “education” group for mothers of autistic children in California said, “quite frankly, I am surprised this doesn’t happen more often.”

Wow.

“I am surprised this doesn’t happen more often.”

The casual nature of this comment stunned me.

She then went on to say, “These children are really unable to be in a reciprocal relationship and the moms don’t really experience the love that comes back from a child — the bonding is mitigated.”  This horrifying statement is untrue, but beyond that, the suggestion that if our feelings are not reciprocated, it makes sense that we become murderous, is to make us so narcissistic, so incredibly monstrous as to be unbelievable.   This is Bruno Bettelheim’s famous “refrigerator mother” theory reapplied to Autistic children and it is just as awful in this new version as it was in the original.

Most Autistic children feel love for their parents, just as most non-autistic children do.  Even when their parents behave horribly toward them, even when they’ve been treated with contempt, ignored, bullied, ridiculed and publicly shamed by those who say they love them, even then, most children still love their parents.  As they grow older many may have more complicated feelings of despair, abandonment, become distrustful, anxious and terrified.  The idea that Autistic children do not feel intensely is an outrageously, misinformed idea.  Just because someone does not reciprocate in a way non-autistics understand, recognize or expect does not mean the feelings do not exist. 

It is extremely disturbing to read such a statement coming from someone who is treated with deference and as though she is an authoritative voice on the topic of autism and Autistic people.  This professor is one of a number of people who has a degree in psychology and has made inaccurate, misinformed and mistaken statements about autism and Autistic people, yet none stop to ask what the psychological damage is to the Autistic children and adults they demonize with their incorrect statements, not to mention the impact such statements have on a misinformed public.  Unfortunately, few seem to be asking any questions about any of this or even bothering to find out if such statements are true, including the newspaper that published her comments.

There is an increasing number of Autistic men, women, teens and even younger people who are writing about their experience of life, their relationships and the world.  I am surprised when I meet someone in the field of autism who does not follow at least some of the blogs so many Autistic people are writing.  The Resources page of Emma’s Hope Book has dozens of links to Autistic people’s writing.  The first 28 blogs listed are written by non-speaking Autistics.  One of those people is my daughter, Emma.  After a presentation Emma gave in New York City a few months ago, she and I had the following conversation:

Emma:  I hope people will question what they have been told.
Ariane:  I do too.
Emma:  Horrible ideas about people, cause many to do terrible things…
A little later in that same conversation, Emma typed, “Worry and fear are fueled by furious words spoken harshly.  Humor soothes, shining sunny rays spreading hope.”

As the mother of an Autistic daughter who cannot communicate fluently with spoken language, but communicates beautifully by typing, I am continuously shocked by the inaccurate information that is rampant on the topic of autism and Autistic people.  Yesterday Emma typed, “Understanding that all human beings want connection is natural and fundamentally human.”  And last week Emma wrote, “The people of this world need to be exposed to difference and then shown compassion for their ignorance and limited thinking.”

For people who do not have the ability to communicate with spoken language and/or have sensory issues that impact each individual differently, expecting them to respond the way people who do not have any problem speaking and have never been assaulted by their environment, is relying on a false idea.  It is this false idea that continues to misrepresent so many.  It is this false idea that serves to hurt Autistic people.

The psychology professor told NBC News that mothers do not have the experience of their love returned by their child.   “That is one of the most difficult things for mothers” she told the reporter.

If this were true, it would be hard.  Years ago, when I once believed a great many things about my daughter, that I now know are not true, it was an awful feeling.  But it is far worse to be that child who loves, but is believed incapable of love.  It is far worse to be so thoroughly misunderstood, to be constantly misrepresented in public, to be thought so problematic that people sympathize with the mother who murders you… that is far more horrific than anything I will ever experience in this world.

London McCabe

London McCabe

Bruno Bettelheim

Most of us have heard, and many may have even read, some of Bruno Bettelheim’s ideas and work.  For those of you unfamiliar – Bruno Bettelheim, born in Austria, came to some prominence when he became director of the Orthogenic School, in connection with the University of Chicago for children with a variety of emotional and neurological issues.  His book, The Empty Fortress was published in 1967; read by many and touted as the final word on autism and its cause – the aloof and emotionally withholding mother.  At the time, his views on the subject became widely known and the treatment for autism was to put the mother in psychoanalysis.  The belief that the mother, in her lack of love for her child, caused the child to withdraw from the world was adopted by many.  Bettelheim claimed a high success rate of children with autism in his school.  It was only until after his suicide that many of his former students came forward with harrowing tales of abuse.  Much of Bruno Bettelheim’s work and ideas have since fallen into question.  The concept of the “refrigerator mom,” something he was an advocate of, has proven to have no validity.

Last week I had a piece published in the Huffington Post – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ariane-zurcher/children-with-autism_b_1080076.html – a woman, now in her nineties wrote to me about her experience of being the mother of a child with autism, diagnosed in 1961.  Rather than examine her child when she sought help, she was put into analysis and blamed for her child’s neurological issues.  She wrote a book, A Few Impertinent Questions, http://301­45.myautho­rsite.com/, that tells of her painful journey.  It is a powerful story.

As I read her book, I reflected on what we think we know now about autism and what will come to light in the future.  Fifty years from now how will we view what we think we know?  What ideas will seem almost comical because we will have learned so much more.  What therapies will have fallen out of favor?  What new therapies will have taken their place?  What will be proven and seem obvious in fifty or sixty years from now, but are not obvious to us now?  I, most likely, will not be around in another fifty years to know the answers to these questions, but I am sure much will be revealed.

For more on Emma’s journey through a childhood of autism, go to:   www.Emma’s Hope Book.com

Misconceptions Regarding Autism

Denis Leary made a stir in 2008 when he made public his belief that autism was caused by “inattentive moms and competitive dads”.  His comments echoed Bruno Bettelheim, who in the 1950’s posited autism was caused by emotionally distant mothers whom he referred to as “refrigerator moms”.   While Bettelheim’s theories were largely rejected in the 1960’s, there remains confusion by many people when confronted with an autistic child.   My guess is many people believe autism is a psychological problem as opposed to neurological.  As my mother so beautifully wrote in her post From Emma’s Granma autism is largely invisible.  Because of this, people often assume the child is behaving badly because they are spoiled and the parents are unaware or worse, condone the bad behavior.

Several years ago, Joe, Emma’s therapist, was with Emma in the park when she fell to the ground screaming she wanted to ride the carousel one more time.  Joe, knowing Emma needed to be back home, told her it was time to go.  Emma refused and sat in the mud in her pretty dress crying and screaming.  A group of women stood nearby, watching with looks of shock and concern.

Emma continued in full melt down mode repeating over and over again, “I want to ride on the carousel!”

One of the women asked Emma if she was okay.  When Emma didn’t respond, Joe tried to physically pick her up, thinking she might calm down once he was holding her.

Another woman in the group yelled at Joe, “Don’t touch her!”

“You have no idea what’s going on here,” Joe said, trying desperately to get Emma to cooperate.

“I’m calling the police,” the woman said, pulling out her phone.

Figuring there was nothing he could say or do to make the women understand, he finally was able to pick Emma up and carry her out of the park.

The group of women followed Joe for the next ten to fifteen minutes.  At which point Emma was calmer and Joe was able to get her into the subway and home.

When Joe arrived back at the house, he was visibly shaken.

All of us who have spent time with Emma over the years have experienced versions of Joe’s experience.  I remember being in a playground in Central Park with Emma one weekend.  It was crowded and Emma was having a tough time waiting for her turn on the swing.  Each time one became empty she rushed forward, trying to grab it.  I ran after her, explaining that it wasn’t her turn yet.  Finally one of the father’s of another child turned to me and said, “Hey!  Can’t you control your kid?”

“She’s autistic”, I said.

Before I could explain further he interrupted me and said, “Yeah?  Well my kid likes to paint too.  Who cares?!”

Confused, I said nothing, but as I led Emma back to her place in line I realized he had misunderstood me and thought I’d said, “artistic”.

It became a running joke at our house whenever any of us didn’t want to do something we’d say, “Hey, I’m artistic.”