What did people think of autism in the 1960s? Here’s a look back at some of the attempts to understand

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Autistic boy looking at school through a fence

Autistic youngsters are children living in shells (1967)

by Robert Shields, London Observer Writer

“Alan behaves as though other people don’t exist. He shows no affection to anyone, always plays alone (if you call it play), and when he does talk, he refers to himself in the third person.

“Objects are most valuable to him if he can make them spin or if they are small enough to pick up and drop, over and over again. He seems happy, too, when pouring water from one container to another. This activity will occupy him for hours.

Climbing on fences

“He is unafraid of things that would make an ordinary child nervous, like climbing dangerously on furniture or fences. On the other hand, he easily flies into a panic or fury if his daily routine is disturbed in any way.

“Alan moves awkwardly, sometimes like a puppet. Despite this peculiarities, the psychologist says he is of above-average intelligence.”

The mother who made these quotes about her 6-year-old knows that he is an autistic child.

Developed normally

He was, she says, an exceptionally good baby, and, as far as she could see, he developed normally during his first three years. Then he gradually deteriorated and became increasingly withdrawn. He has just been found a place in a unit for autistic children.

In recent years autism, a very severe form of mental illness in children, which affects four times as many boys as girls, has been the subject of intense study and debate.

It still remains a mystery, and despite all that medical, educational and psychological research has to offer, the majority of autistic children face a bleak and emotionally crippled future.

It’s deeply affecting

It is a deeply affecting experience to watch a group of these children, who so often are exceptionally beautiful and well-built.

Though in close proximity, they ignore one another, each locked in silence, or constantly repeating some apparently meaningless phrase, or carrying out over and over again a particular gesture or action which has significance only for him.

If you smile at one of them the smile is not returned; if you say something it seems not to be understood. There is no place for others in the private world the autistic child occupies.

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Dates from 1930s

Mental illness in children is not a new phenomenon, although systematic research into autism only dates from the 1930s. Three American psychiatrists — Drs Lauretta Bender, Margaret Mahler and Leo Kanner — have spearheaded this research.

They disagree on a number of points, but they are at one in thinking that the psychotic child is not as much withdrawn as “alone.” Alone in the sense that each autistic lives in an inner secret and frightening world into which he dare not let others intrude.

The autistic child holds this personal world together precariously, just this side of uncontrollable panic. Many of his repetitious actions appear to be a kind of magical preoccupation aimed at keeping others out and preserving the thin walls of self-defense.

It is because the small patient dreads the breakdown of his insecure inner world that he is so easily distressed by any change in his environment. Inanimate objects are, for him, much safer than people because they do not behave unpredictably, they make no demands and can be manipulated without difficulty.

If you pick up and then drop a toy brick, it will always fall in much the same way. If you pour water from one jar to another, much the same thing happens every time. You have control. There is nothing to be frightened of.

Educationists and clinicians who have worked closely with this type of child are generally agreed that he constantly fears that if his magical but tenuous hold on the object-world were to break down he would disintegrate or be annihilated.

How do these unfortunate children become ill in the first place? How do they come to lose, or never fully gain, the knack of enjoying themselves in the real world of loving parents, of brothers and sisters?

MORE  An early look at autism: 'Wooden doll' illness noted by university researchers (1960)

No answers yet

No one as yet has advanced a fulling convincing answer. Early workers in the field tended to link the illness with one single cause, but recent research would seem to suggest a combination of factors. A number of specialists think that the unknown factor may be pseudo-maturity.

There is evidence to show that children who later become autistic often reveal in earliest infancy unusual sensitivity and emotional vulnerability.

Such children man, for a variety of reasons (and inadequate maternal care is often mentioned), become too mature too quickly. If this happens the personality may lack the strength and resilience of the normal child’s; and, should he then be faced with a stressful situation, or crisis of some kind, he may retreat into an autistic type of existence.

Dr John Bowlby in England and Margaret Ribble in America have separately demonstrated that, to be emotionally healthy, the infant needs a warm, responsive, intimate and continuously loving relationship with his mother or mother-substitute.

MORE  Mom: Autism is not your fault, and other good advice from 1963

Many clinicians and research psychologists who have worked with autistic children and their families, while not suggesting that the autistic child was rejected by his parents in the conventional sense, have found that the mother-child relationship has often proved to be unusual.

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