Michael Yudell, PhD, MPH
Assistant Professor, Department of Community Health and Prevention
Title: A History of Blame? Autism Spectrum Disorder Etiology Research Since 1943
Abstract: There remains, despite myriad claims to the contrary, no known etiology of autism spectrum disorders (ASD), and little historical understanding of the diagnosis. From blaming parents to genes to vaccines and vaccine ingredients, the search for what causes ASDs has produced more condemnation and controversy than a definitive understanding of the group of developmental disorders under the ASD umbrella. This talk explores the early history of the search for the etiology of ASDs. Once diagnosed as childhood schizophrenia and a host of other neuro-psychiatric disorders, autism was first named by the psychiatrist Leo Kanner in 1943 as a disorder of “disturbances of affective contact.” Yet, before the end of the 1940s Kanner abandoned a biological explanation for the disorder for a purely psychogenic one. Kanner’s new description of autism etiology laid blame squarely on bad parenting. From Kanner was born what would become one of the most destructive and reviled theories of autism etiology—the refrigerator parent or, more commonly, mother. In Kanner’s view, autistic children were “kept neatly in refrigerators that did not defrost. Their withdrawal seems to be an act of turning away from such a situation to seek comfort in solitude.” This view of autism dominated the medical and psychological fields for almost three decades, led most prominently by the psychologist Bruno Bettelheim. It was not until the 1960s that the refrigerator parent hypothesis was challenged in any significant way. Biological and environmental theories of autism etiology did not become the dominant approach in research until at least the 1970s and 1980s. This talk will explore the history of etiologic research of ASDs and explore the shifts between biological, psychogenic, and environmental explanations for the disorder from the 1940s through the 1970s. The paper will consider both the social and scientific forces behind changing approaches to the etiology of the disorder.
Time: 12:15 PM
Place: Claire M. Fagin Hall, School of Nursing, University of Pennsylvania
Room 2019, 2U Conference Room
The Bates Center Seminar Series features scholarly papers and presentations on the history of nursing and health care and welcomes all interested individuals.
Barbara Bates Center for the Study of the History of Nursing
University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing
418 Curie Blvd.
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6096
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