Leo Kanner, Mothers and Autism
Bill Long 12/8/07
One Step Below Divinity..or Screwing it all Up?
Anyone who seeks to write a history of autism in the 20th century must come to grips with one of the most powerful and debilitating characterizations of mothers of children with autism that came from mid-century: that these mothers were cold, unfeeling or "refrigerator mothers." I haven't found the first usage of this term, but Leo Kanner, in an interview with Time Magazine published in the July 25, 1960 edition, characterizes parents of autistic children as "just happening to defrost enough to produce a child." When this kind of language is used in combination with Bettelheim's psychoanalytic terminology that seeks to blame parents for "Joey, the mechanical boy," you have a strong assault on parents. Two of the greatest American psychologists, one a Freudian (Bettelheim) and one skeptical of Freud's claims (Kanner), were telling parents in the 1950s/1960s that they may be the cause of their child's autism. For parents who were/are struggling with lingering issues of guilt and anger anyway, this tonic is about as refreshing as a December Seattle rain shower. What I propose to do in this essay is to trace Kanner's attitude towards parents back to 1935, when he published the seminal work in English in a new discipline--child psychiatry. My thesis is that even Kanner's early work reflects a deep ambivalence about the role of parents, especially mothers, in creating the psychological debilities of their children.
Child Psychiatry (1935)
It took Time Magazine only a week after Kanner's pathbreaking book was published to run out to Baltimore and meet him for an interview about his work. In the July 15, 1935 edition of Time, we learn the following. According to Kanner, children are naughty because they are ill, unhappy or untrained. In order to correct a naughty child, Kanner advised parents first to learn what physical ailments the child may suffer from. One method to do this would be to inquire directly of the child. But then Kanner drops his "bomb" against parents. The Time article goes on:
"The child will do this [i.e., tell what his problem is] most readily if questioned apart from his parents, especially apart from his mother. Says Dr. Kanner: 'The mother is often apt to quote diagnostic terms obtained through reading or from previous medical osteopathic, or chiropractic consultations or from some supposedly enlightened relative or neighbor. How much harm may be done in this manner was perhaps best demonstrated by the 13-year-old slightly retarded girl who was wheeled into the office in an attitude of extreme weakness and helplessness and with the most pitiful facial expression that can be imagined. When questioned as to her complaint, she stated whiningly: 'I have an auriculo-valvular disease,' a 'diagnosis' which, in conjuction with the attendant parental apprehensions, had made a chronic invalid of the child. ..Often a child misbehaves because his mother spoils him or puts naughty notions into his head...'"
Fast Forward to 1943
Kanner's book Child Psychiatry came out eight years before his pioneering study on autism. Yet already in his early work, Kanner has what you might call an "anti-mother" philosophy. I suppose that the first generation of child psychiatrists (and maybe later generations, too) saw themselves as "saviors" of children. But in order to portray themselves that way, they either had to conclude that children were responsible for their own psychological problems or someone else was. If it was someone else, these child psychiatrists had to create an "enemy" of sorts, a person or persons who were making life difficult for the children. By creating the myth or story of maternal or paternal injury of children, the psychiatrist was also positing a role for himself--between parent and child.
Thus, when Kanner turned to his study of children with autism in 1943, he was already inclined to think that mothers, especially, messed up children. Now, when he had children with autism before him, he reiterated his theory.
"In the whole group (of the parents of children with autism), there are very few really warmhearted fathers and mothers....Even some of the happiest marriages are rather cold and formal affairs," (citation in this essay).
Kanner in 1960
By the time we arrive at Kanner's 1960 interview with Time, 17 years later, we have a further evolution in Kanner's thought, though he still has definite opinions about mothers. But he nuances his thoughts as follows: on the one hand he affirms the value of mothers as more important than the psychologists.
"There is no raid shelter from the verbal bombs that rain on contemporary parents. At every turn they run up against weird words and phrases which are apt to confuse them no end: Oedipus complex, inferiority complex, maternal rejection, sibling rivalry....blah-blah, blah-blah."
In contrast, Kanner gave this exhortation:
"Let us, contemporary mothers (is he a mother?), together regain that common sense which is yours, which has been yours before you allowed yourselves to be intimidated by would-be omniscient totalitarians."
It sounds like Kanner is trying to "rewrite" the historical record, as we say. Mothers now possess common sense, a sense that helps them realize that what the psychologists ("omniscient totalitarians"--could he be thinking of Bettelheim, who only the year before had published the "Joey" article?) say is often not right or helpful, but simply gobbledygook.
Yet even in this seemingly changed frame of mind, the author of the article slips in the following:
"But there is one type of child to whom even Dr. Kanner cannot get close. All too often this child is the offspring of highly organized, professional parents, cold and rational--the type that Dr. Kanner describes as 'just happening to defrost enough to produce a child.'"
Just so we are clear on who these children are, the author concludes:
"For this condition Dr. Kanner coined the term 'infantile autism.'"
When you have an assault on American mothers by two Austrian psychologists, whose strange accents and stranger language is dripping with the (at that time) omniscient Gaura of the Germanic professor, you have all the makings of a cultural and parental crisis in the United States, especially for parents of children with autism. It took Bernard Rimland's 1964 book to attack this thesis head-on. Let's turn now to his book.