Currently my tour of books on social history has lead me to The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan. I wanted to share specifically what I read this morning about “autism.” (In quotes as it was in the book.)
As the mother of an autistic child, it was particularly interesting for me to read the thinking from 1963, two years before my birth. I have frequently heard mention of how it was once thought autism was the result of The Refrigerator Mother but never have I read such a gross account of just what that perception meant and the impact and prejudice I can easlly imagine resulted in such thinking.
When I read the following passages I was struck by their harshness, yes, their brutality. It states quite clearly that the autistic child is dehumanized, but what I read also was how the mothers, how women, without so much of a thought to them, were dehumanized in the research and by the thinking of the day.
From, The Feminine Mystique, Chapter 12, Progressive Dehumanization: The Comfortable Concentration Camp, pp. 413-416
At its most extreme, this pattern of progressive dehumanization can be seen in the cases of schizophrenic children: “autistic” or “atypical” children, as they are sometimes called. I visited a famous clinic which has been studying these children for almost twenty years. During this period, cases of these children, arrested at a very primitive, sub-infantile level, have seemed to some to be on the increase. The authorities differ as to the cause of this strange condition, and whether it is actually on the increase or only seems to be because it is now more often diagnosed. Until quite recently, most of these children were thought to be mentally retarded. But the condition is being seen more frequently now, in hospitals and clinics, by doctors and psychiatrists. And it is not the same as the irreversible, organic types of mental retardation. It can be treated, and sometimes cured.
These children often identify themselves with things, inanimate objects – cars, radios, etc., or with animals – pigs, dogs, cats. The crux of the problem seems to be that these children have not organized or developed strong enough selves to cope even with the child’s reality; they cannot distinguish themselves as separate from the outside world; they live on the level of things or of instinctual biological impulse that has not been organized into a human framework at all. As for causes, the authorities felt they “must examine the personality of the mother, who is the medium through which the primitive infant transforms himself into a socialized human being.” 13
At a clinic I visited (The James Jackson Putnam Children’s Center in Boston) the workers were cautious about drawing conclusions about these profoundly disturbed children. But one of the doctors said, a bit impatiently, about the increasing stream of “missing egos, fragile egos, poorly developed selves” that he has encountered – “It’s just the thing we’ve always known, if the parent has a fragile ego, the child will.”
Most of the mothers of the children who never developed a core of human self were “extremely immature individuals” themselves, though on the surface they “give the impression of being well-adjusted.” They were very dependent on their own mothers, fled this dependency into early marriage, and “have struggled heroically to build and maintain the image they have created of a fine woman, wife and mother.”
The need to be a mother, the hope and expectation that through this experience she may become a real person, capable of true emotions, is so desperate that of itself it may create anxiety, ambivalence, fear of failure. Because she is so barren of spontaneous manifestations of maternal feelings, she studies vigilantly all the new methods of upbringing and reads treatises about physical and mental hygiene.” 14
Her omnipresent care of her child is based not on spontaneity but on following the “picture of what a good mother should be,” in the hope that “through identification with the child, her own flesh and blood, she may experience vicariously the joys of real living, of genuine feeling.”
And thus, the child is reduced to “passive inertia” to “screaming in the night” to non-humanness. “This passive child is less of a threat because he does not make exaggerated demands on the mother, who feels constantly in danger of revealing that emotionally she has little or nothing to offer, that she is a fraud.” When she discovers that she cannot really find her own fulfillment through the child:
…she fights desperately for control, no longer of herself perhaps, but of the child. The struggles over toilet training and weaning are generally battles in which she tries to redeem herself. The child becomes the real victim – victim of the mother’s helplessness, which, in turns, creates an aggression in her that mounts to destruction. The only way for the child to survive is to retreat, to withdraw, not only from the dangerous mother, but from the whole world as well.” 15
And so he becomes a “thing,” or an animal, or “a restless wanderer in search of no one and no place, weaving about the room, swaying back and forth, circling walls as if they were bars he would break through.”
In this clinic, the doctors were often able to trace a similar pattern back several generations. The dehumanization was indeed progressive.
In view of these clinical observations, we may assume that the conflict we discovered in two generations may well have existed for generations before and will continue in those to come, unless the pattern is interrupted by therapeutic intervention or the child is rescued by a masculine father-figure, a hope which our experience would not lead us to expect.” 16
13. Beata Rank, “Adaptation of the Psychoanalytical Technique for the Treatment of Young Children with Atypical Development,” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, XIX, 1, januarly, 1949.
16. Beata Rank, Marian C. Putnam, and Gregory Rochlin, M.D., “The Significance of the ‘Emotional Climate’ in Early Feeding Difficulties,” Psychosomatic Medicine, X, 5, October, 1948.
Image from Heroes: Refrigerator Mothers and Autism. Watch it. It’s worth four minutes.