Unhinging from Theory: Autism and Opinionsby Robert A. Yourell, MA | April 11, 2008
Sometimes, disconnecting our theories from our healing practices and clinical understanding can be a good thing to do. When Bruno Bettelheim convinced many psychotherapists and psychological theoreticians that autism was caused by bad parenting in the form of “refrigerator mothers,” he was stuck on a theory. He was proven wrong, but it took some time for these clinicians to let go of their theory and see that the cause of autism was not known.
For that duration, we can thank Bettelheim for causing an extraordinary amount of suffering because of his unscientific, though well-meaning, thinking. Countless mothers were blamed for their children’s autism. What a thing to live with! Especially given the brutal way he would tongue-lash some of these poor souls. At least he was irrational and inventive enough that some of those people could see through him.
By the way, the theory wasn’t very scientific. Because autistic children reminded him of the Nazi concentration camp internees that he observed while himself an internee, he decided that both populations had to have the same cause for the behavior. Since the internees were emotionally abused, then the autistic children had to have been abused. Since the mothers were emotionally disconnected from the children, then it was their coldness that was the abuse. Now we know that it is very difficult to be emotionally connected to an autistic child, even if you’re the mother. Also, abuse of autistic children is more common than with normal children, most likely because the parental instincts triggered by normal children are not invoked. Still, emotional abuse long ago was proven not to be the cause.
This wouldn’t be complete without pointing out that Bettelheim’s biographer, in a painfully detailed 475 page book reviewed in the New York Times, gives an overabundance of proof that Bettelheim was a pathological liar, and that his original research supporting his theories of autism was wither vastly inflated, or simply invented.
Theories are like bellybuttons, everybody has one. Why the abundance? In the absence of real knowledge, we’ll improvise enough to feel important. Besides, suspending our opinions and really investigating is work. What would you rather do, feel important and masterful, or work? What? You found ways to have it all? Excellent! Pass it on!
I’ll be writing more about unhinging ourselves from theories. It’s one of the most important topics in science and healing. Think on this. Given the power of truly troubled people to have a great impact in the field of psychotherapy at various points in history, how well are we doing now? Can you think of any “elephants in the living room” in the form of persuasive, influential people, who may be living a lie? Not that I want to start yet another witch hunt. I just want to encourage critical thinking, clinical effectiveness, and intellectual honesty.
And if that isn’t enough, how about this modern-day koan: What is the difference between honesty and freedom? Is freedom the condition that allows you to be honest? Is honesty the act that creates freedom? How are these speculations relevant to the situations in your life where you can promote healing in yourself and others?
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