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Bettelheim’s theories on autism under scrutiny

Bruno Bettelheim may have been famous in his time for his theories of child development, but since he committed suicide at age 86 in 1990, his theories have come under great scrutiny. Some aspects of Bruno Bettelheim’s theory of child development deal with autistic children; however, he supported the theory first put forward by Leo Kanner, who was the first psychiatrist to document autism blaming mothers for the condition. Kanner and Bettelheim supported the concept that was coined as ‘refrigerator moms’ as the culprit for their children exhibiting signs of autism. They claimed that the seemingly distant and cold behavior of these moms kept the children from bonding with them, leading to their autistic behaviors. These theories were popular in the 1940s and 1950s, but their challenges began to appear in the 1960s.

Bruno Bettelheim’s theory of child development was also credited with helping hundreds of children with serious disorders to lead normal lives. He founded the Orthogenic School at the University of Chicago where these children lived and were treated by Bettelheim. However, after his death, former students at the school told horror stories about the terrors they were forced to live with while at school. Bettelheim was even accused of plagiarism and poor-quality reporting practices by his colleagues.

Some of the things he was accused of post-mortem, included the following:

1. Hating the parents of the children he treated. There is evidence that he called the students’ parents by names like ‘raw schlemeil’ and ‘Jewish mother’.
2. Exhibiting extreme anger, giving truth to the many complaints parents had about their behavior.
3. Secrecy and cover-up, shown when he extracted promises from family members never to discuss sessions with each other or with other patients.
4. Anti-Semitism and lies about its findings, blaming the boy’s problems on Jewish heritage.

A disturbing account of Bruno Bettelheim’s theory of child development can be found in his book, The Empty Fortress, which was published in 1967. In this book, he compares the parents of autistic children to the SS guards in a camp of concentration. Bettelheim was a survivor of Buchenwald and Dachau. He stated in the book that “the trigger for childhood autism is the parents’ wish that their child does not exist.” This claim has led parents of autistic children around the world to recognize that he was a charlatan and that his theories about autism were wildly incorrect. This book describes Betteleim’s “successes” in treating autistic children, but it is clear that these children were not autistic, as none of them seemed to exhibit the easily identifiable characteristics of autism.

Those characteristics, identified by Kanner in 1943, included:

2.Lack of reciprocity
3.absence of eye contact
4. an inability to use language to communicate effectively

The children Bettelheim described used metaphorical language in a way that autistic children simply cannot. They did not show any of the classic signs of autism, nor did they allow any observers to enter the school during the study. In fact, he was a phony.


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