Temple Grandin Eustacia Cutler Autism Fund

The Temple Grandin
and Eustacia Cutler Autism Fund

Autism and the Minefield of Blame

by Eustacia Cutler (c) 2015

The story of autism as we are told it today started in 1943, the year Dr. Leo Kanner described in a paper eleven children he’d been seeing for several years in his clinic. Kanner was an Austrian psychiatrist who’d immigrated to the United States in 1924 to become director of the children’s psychiatric services at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore,

From infancy, Kanner wrote, these eleven children “seemed cut off from their parents, existing “in their own impenetrable world.” Kanner was the first clinician in the United States to make the case that their behavior constituted a unique syndrome, which he called “early infantile autism.”

At the same time in Vienna (1944) Hans Asperger, a doctor specializing in pediatrics, was studying a group of boys who had no speech delay, but could not fit in socially. Instead they fixated on intensely personal subjects, and held forth on them.

Despite certain parallel features, WWII prevented these two doctors from knowing each other. Hans Asperger’s work would not be recognized as a formal diagnosis until the 1980’s when Lorna Wing in England brought it to light and Uta Frith, in 1991, published her work Asperger and His Syndrome:

”These were children who could talk fluently, albeit oddly, by age five, and who became at least superficially well adapted and occasionally quite successful adults, though such ‘Asperger  Syndrome’ cases tend to remain supremely egocentric and isolated.’”

In the 50’s this country had only Kanner’s diagnosis of “early infantile autism.” At first Kanner had considered the possibility that the behavior of his eleven children might be neurologically caused, (as had psychologist Erik Erikson) but the 50’s zeitgeist was celebrating Freud.

Our books, magazines, plays, and movies accorded psychiatrists the role of the hero-who-comes-up-with-the-answer-that-puts-everything-right. We didn’t understand Freud, other than what we’d gleaned from these hero driven roles. We didn’t have a clue why any of us would want to stretch out on a couch to find our soul. Nevertheless we stood in awe of psychoanalysis. We couldn’t see it for what it actually was: one more exploration of the human condition and therefore open to question.

In the popular Freudian mode Kanner pronounced environment to be the cause of autism and environment was the home. Parents of autistic children, he declared, were “highly intelligent, self-absorbed, preoccupied with their careers and emotionally cold, keeping their autistic children neatly in a refrigerator that did not defrost.“*

Apparently it hadn’t occurred to Dr. Kanner that only sophisticated parents could follow what he was talking about and only affluent professionals (probably professors at his own Johns Hopkins) could afford his fee. As for emotional chill: to have a judgmental psychiatrist tell you that you are emotionally cold, wouldn’t make even a fellow professor feel warm and friendly.

Fathers were let off the hook. Mothers were to blame.

Kanner later regretted his chilly interpretation and in 1969 publically absolved mothers at the first national autism meeting. But it was too late.

Blame had been let loose, swept into high profile with an assist from author Phillip Wylie. In his popular book, Generation of Vipers— (1942, republished in 1955) Wylie had created the term “Momism.” Though today it’s hard to read him with a straight face, from 1942 through the 50’s Wylie’s words carried a vicious punch:

Mom is an American creation… a middle-aged puffin with an eye like a hawk that has just seen a rabbit twitch far below. She is about twenty-five pounds over-weight, with no sprint, but sharp heels and a hard backhand which she does not regard as a foul but a womanly defense…She smokes thirty cigarettes a day, chews gum, and consumes tons of bonbons and petits fours. The voracity of a hammerhead shark, which cannot see what it is trying to gobble but never stops snapping its jaws…”

Wow! How could any woman— mother, aunt or grandmother–swallow such guff. 1942 was wartime. Sugar and butter were rationed; there were no bonbons. Women worked in factories. (Remember Rosie the Riveter?)

But we did swallow it. As soon as WWII was over we handed the factories back to the men and hurried home to don frilly aprons and acquiesce. In spite of our girlish attempts to win male approval, even psychologist Erik Erikson, who had coined the word “identity”, concurred with Wylie’s judgment. In his Childhood and Society, published in 1950. he wrote:

Mom assumes authority on the mores and morals of her home, her community, “yet she permits herself to remain…vain in her appearance, egotistical in her demands, and infantile in her emotions.”

We’d all of us read Wylie and Erikson, so when I became a first time mother I dreaded the thought that I might turn into Wylie’s “Mom,” that I could inadvertently impose myself, unwanted, on my child, Still a child myself, I didn’t yet understand that my new born infant needed my total embrace. Out of a vague need to be a “good” mom I read my baby’s lack of response as a sign that she found my embrace “intrusive” and wanted me to leave her alone.

So I did.

In those early post war years did any of us young mothers know what our babies wanted? Few babies were born in WWII, the men were off fighting. I’d never even held a baby let alone thought about how to raise one. We were all of us in the same boat. The difference was: my child had autism.

She couldn’t respond.

While other mothers played peek-a-boo with their baby, my baby didn’t even grab for my beads and stuff them in her mouth. While other babies cooed and babbled and their mothers babbled back, my baby was mute.

Whatever makes mothers and babies respond to each other, it wasn’t there.

Was my baby trapped in her “own impenetrable world?” .

Though autism was still relatively infrequent, there were other mothers with children who lived in the same strange world, children who were much more difficult than mine. Yet in some odd fashion, they all fitted the syndrome Leo Kanner had described.

Did other mothers think that their babies were snubbing them? Had they, too, tried hard not to fall into the pit of Wylie’s “momism”? Had our non intrusive behavior made our children worse? Did it account for Kanner’s opinion that we’d kept them ”neatly in a refrigerator that did not defrost?”

Unsure of our maternal role, and fearful for our children, we were ready to believe any opinion handed down to us..

The stage was set, the timing was perfect.

Enter Dr. Bruno Bettelheim, the ultimate psychiatrist. “He” with his black rimmed spectacles and heavy guttural rumble. “He” with his brave life experiences facing the Nazis in Dachau and Buchenwald. “He” with his Freudian expertise, straight from Vienna.

We adjusted the rabbit ears on our new TV sets and viewed him in awe:

“It is a psychosis, he told us, caused by the children’s frigid and unloving mothers.”


“Yes you,”

Already in accord with Kanner, the entire medical profession now leapt to champion Bettelheim as well. Mothers had no choice but to accept damnation.

Where were the challengers in this minefield of blame?

Actually there were challengers.

And herewith are the vital points for the full story: