Early Childhood Trauma and Lack of Affection

Dr. Bruno Bettelheim believed that autism was linked to early childhood trauma, and his work was highly influential for decades both in the medical and popular spheres. Parents, especially mothers, of autistic's were blamed for having caused their child's condition through the withholding of affection. Leo Kanner, who first described autism (Autistic disturbances of affective contact, 1943) originated the "refrigerator mother" hypothesis, which held that autism was at least partly caused by a lack of affection from the mother. Although Kanner eventually renounced the theory and apologized publicly, Bettelheim put an almost exclusive emphasis on it in both his medical and his popular books. These theories did nothing to address the fact that having more than one autistic child in a family is exceptional, not the rule. Treatments based on these theories failed to help autistic children, and after Bettelheim's death it came out that his reported rates of cure (around 85%) were found to be fraudulent.

Psychogenic theories in general have become increasingly unpopular, particularly since twin studies have shown that autism is highly heritable. Nevertheless, some case reports have found that deep institutional privation can result in "quasi-autistic" symptoms without the neuroanatomical differences. Other case reports have suggested that children predisposed genetically to autism can develop "autistic devices" in response to traumatic events such as the birth of a sibling.

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