Psychoanalytic Causes/Proponents

By: Brooke Durbin & Kyra Mandas

In 1943 an Austran Psychiatrist and physician, Leo Kanner termed these types of symptoms as “early infantile autism”. He also described one who had early infantile autism as one who had difficulty relating to people and social situations. Kanner also was the first to classify autism, but he was not the first to come up with the term autism.

A Swiss Psychiatrist Eugene Bleuler, first used the term autism, meaning “self” in 1912. (Foster 2007).

In 1944 Hans Asperger termed the name “autistic psychopathy” for a child who exhibited higher functioning autistic behaviors.  In the 1980’s “autistic psychopathy” was renamed Asperger’s syndrome after the Austrian pediatrician.  Asperger syndrome was defined by Hans Asperger as impairments in the areas of speech, social interaction, motor coordination and expression of emotion.  Simply Asperger Syndrome is a part of the ASD’s and defines the higher functioning part of autism.  So individuals with Asperger Syndrome are considered to be Autistic but can function much more independently with intact language and cognitive abilities than can those with autism.

In 1967 Bruno Bettelheim assumed that autism was an emotional disorder caused by emotionally ‘cold’ parents, especially mothers, who subconsciously rejected their offspring. This developed into the theory of ‘refrigerator parents’ or ‘refrigerator mothers’ despite the lack of empirical evidence to support the theory. This theory was very much popularized by Bettelheim who was a concentration camp survivor. He had observed firsthand the extreme symptoms of social withdrawal, anxiety, depression and stereotyped behavior resulting from trauma to the concentration camp inmates. When he observed similar behaviors in children with autism in America he assumed that these children had suffered a similar extreme trauma which could only have happened at home at the hands of the people the child spent most of his or her time with, their parents. Since parents were assumed to be the primary source of the child’s disorder, removal from the home and placement in residential institutions (‘parentectomy’) was often recommended as treatment (Bettelheim, 1967).

In 1987 Ivar Lovaas described Autism as “a serious psychological disorder with onset in early childhood.” (1987). He explained that children with Autism show little emotional attachment, abnormal or absent speech, very low IQ, ritualistic behaviors, aggression, and self-injury.  Lovaas, instead of using medical therapies, used behavioral modification in his therapies (1987).

Bernard Rimland is most widely known for disagreeing with Leo Kanner and not blaming parents for their child’s autism (Seah, 2007). He believed there to be a biological cause of autism. Rimland founded the Autism Society of America in 1965 and promoted Lovaas’ new behavioral treatment for autism, applied behavior analysis (ABA). ABA is currently one of the most common and effective treatments for autism (“Applied Behavior Analysis,”2009). Rimland also founded the Autism Research Institute in 1967 which has continued to thrive and conduct new research.  Rimland continued searching for a cause and created controversy when he blamed vaccines for the increased incident of autism which was later disproved (Seah, 2010). However, the effect of his accusation leaves some mothers still hesitant to vaccinate their children.  Rimland had an autistic son and in an effort to increase awareness he served as an advisor for the movie “Rain Man” (Seah, 20o7).  Rimland passed away in 2006 however his effect on finding a cure for autism continues (Seah, 2007).


Applied Behavior Analysis for Children With Autism. (2009). Retrieved November 7, 2010, from

Bettelheim, Bruno. (1967) The Empty Fortress; Infantile Autism and the Birth of the Self. The Free Press. Retrieved from

Bleger, Jose. (1974). Schizophrenia, Autism, and Symbiosis. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 10,19-25

Foster, Jennifer. (2007)  The Praeger Handbook of SpecialEducation; History of Autism. Praeger publishers.

Frith, Uta. (1991) Autism and Asperger Syndrome. Cambridge University Press.

Lovaas, Ivar. (1987) Behavioral Treatment and Normal Educational and Intellectual

Seah, R. (2007). Cure autism? Possible, said dr. Bernard rimland. Retrieved November 28, 2010, from


Bernard Rimland. Retrieved from

Bruno Bettelheim. Retrieved from

Eugene Bleuler. Retrieved from

Hans Asperger. Retrieved from

Ivar Iovaas. Retrieved from

Leo Kanner Retrieved from

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