Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Blaming the Patriarchy for Autistic Children

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: There's a brief passage in Betty Friedan's landmark study of American housewives in the 1950s and '60s, The Feminine Mystique, where she discusses autism. She embraces the understanding of autism popular at the time, which posits that autism is an emotional disturbance arising from the relationship between mother and child. Yet she parts company from other popularizers of this theory by arguing that the confining, constricted nature of the housewife role distorts women's personalities and their relationships with their husbands and children, thereby making psychological problems more, not less, likely in the families where the mothers are full-time housewives.

She was, of course, massively wrong about autism, though I think her overall thesis about women's needs, and the failure of traditional gender roles to meet them, was (and is!) sound. The few paragraphs she devotes to autism aren't crucial to the points she makes in the rest of the book, and the psychogenic theory of autism is pretty much dead today, and hardly in need of aggressive debunking, but she talks about increasing prevalence of autism with an urgency similar to the "autism epidemic" fears of today.
The Classic Text of the Modern Women's Movement which Exploded the Myth of THE FEMININE MYSTIQUE!
It's the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, and instead of talking about the book as a whole, or evaluating it in a modern context (as so many other people, far better informed than I, have already done), I am going to spotlight one small part in the book, where she talks about autism.

(If you've read the book, even recently, you might not even remember her talking about autism at all! The idea might even strike you as anachronistic, given that freaking out over an Autism Epidemic is so pervasive in our time. But it's in there --- it hit me with particular force because I am autistic, and the passage is the kind of thing it's not at all nice to read if you're reading it about yourself.)

If you haven't read this book, do, especially if you're interested in feminism or women's history. As profoundly limited in scope as it is (a quality it shares with the earlier, similar work by Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which also concerns itself with society's neglect of women's minds and non-reproductive capacities) --- the only women who show up in its pages are well-educated, middle-and-upper-class white women, who don't have to do hard, physical work (or much of any work) to survive, for whom work outside the home could be intellectually demanding and emotionally rewarding, instead of boring, exhausting, dangerous, soul-killing drudgery, and whose labor is only exploited within the home and never also outside it --- it's still valuable for its detailed enumeration of the psychological costs of limiting women's lives to marriage, home and family.

Off and on throughout the book, and in a more sustained fashion in Chapters Eleven and Twelve, Friedan talks about how, perversely, the 1950s and '60s funneling of women back into the full-time housewife role actually hurt family life and sexual relations. In Chapter Twelve, "Progressive Dehumanization," she describes a pattern she sees of women whose too-early entry into marriage and motherhood precluded their developing authentic selves of their own, and thus rendered them incapable of raising children with all the skills and character traits they needed to become independent, themselves.

(I am going to quote at some length from the chapter, so for readability's sake I'm going to do what I did in this post and not blockquote the entire thing, but instead draw lines above and below the quoted text to separate it from my own. Quotations within the quoted passage I will still blockquote).

Here she brings in autism as the logical endpoint of this Great Chain of Nonbeing, this "progressive dehumanization" as one psychologically stunted generation brings up another, even more psychologically stunted, to the point of being autistic.

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 visisted 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 live on the level of things or of instinctual biological impulse that has not been organized into human framework at all. As for the 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."

At the 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 encountered --- "It's just the thing we've always known, that 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. [This passage, along with the one a few paragraphs down, comes from Beata Rank (1949), "Adaptation of the Psychoanalytical Technique for the Treatment of Young Children with Atypical Development," American Journal of Orthopsychiatry*, Vol. 19, Issue 1, pp. 130-139]
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."
(Is anyone else starting to think of the evil Other Mother from "Coraline" yet?)

And thus, the child is reduced from "passive inertia" to "screaming in the night" to non-humanness. "The 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 turn, 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.
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, circling the 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.

The first thing about this passage that jumps out at me is the objectification of the autistic children Friedan and her expert interlocutors are observing. 

It's just so explicit: autistic people are not human, we're not even conscious. We represent the endpoint of a multigenerational loss of humanity. It's kind of ironic and weird that a book whose aim is to prove that women's minds are more complex, capable of more and needing more, than the psych experts of the time thought possible, would make the same kind of categorical dismissal of the possibility of any inner life in another group of people.

Maybe it's not that weird. And the point she's trying to make --- that people who are shunted into parenthood without any opportunity to live their own lives, or find out what they really want (including whether they want to be parents!) tend to make poor parents --- is a valid one; it's just that autistic people are neither "dehumanized" nor the result of poor parenting. We're as fully human as anyone else.

Moving on: You can see Bruno Bettelheim's** "refrigerator mother" theory of autism supplying most of the basic theory here; it's just that Friedan is more sympathetic to the mothers than he is. Both writers (and Friedan was trained as a psychologist, too) think autism is a state of psychological emptiness (no self, no thoughts, no capacity to relate to others) caused by something going wrong in the mother/child relationship --- something the mother does wrong. Bettelheim thought children became autistic because their mothers rejected them --- at some level (whether they were aware of it or not) they "wish(ed) that (their) child(ren) should not exist." For Friedan, the problem starts earlier: the mothers' own emotional development is curtailed, because they never had a chance to do anything other than marry young and have children, so the mothers lean too hard on their young children for emotional support, which then stunts the children's emotional growth to an even greater extent. Mother and child are both victims, and the social order is to blame.

I see no difference at all between Friedan and Bettelheim in their degree of empathy for actual autistic children (and perish the thought that they might consider autistic adults): there is none. The whole point of both of their theories is that we are not people, we have no inner lives worth considering; they only differ on how we came to be that way. We represent the end stage of some pathology, whether it is social (patriarchy, in Friedan) or personal (refrigerator motherhood, in Bettelheim).

*Am I the only person who finds the term "orthopsychiatry" to be very creepy? It has a connotation of straightening, of bringing into line, that I don't think belongs in the mental-health profession. I know (partially from reading The Feminine Mystique itself, although The Organization Man and The Lonely Crowd also helped give me this impression) that that was indeed the aim of psychiatry in those days --- to bring people into line, to help them "adjust" --- but it still creeps me out a lot.

**Bettelheim isn't cited in any of the sections describing autism, probably because The Feminine Mystique predated his most famous work about autism, The Empty Fortress, by four years. But he had been running his Orthogenic School for "disturbed" children since the mid-1940s, and had written at least two things (an essay for Scientific American magazine, and an article about feral children, whom he believed were really autistic) about autism prior to The Feminine Mystique's publication in 1963. Bettelheim is quoted at length elsewhere in the chapter --- Friedan devotes a lot of space to his observations of his fellow prisoners in the Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps. Also, William Long, who has written a series of articles on how various writers have understood autism throughout its history, believes that Bettelheim must have been popularizing his theories of autism long before he published The Empty Fortress, because Bernard Rimland criticizes Bettelheim and his "psychogenic" view of autism in his own book, Early Infantile Autism, published in 1964.


Angelia Sparrow said...

I read The Feminine Mystique years ago and emerged with a MUCH better understanding of my mother and grandmother. We are the target audience.

I remember, even in the 80s, autistic children were considered "not there. No inner life, no feeling, no perception." They were essentially considered human shaped objects to be warehoused and trained into minimal independence.

It's good that things have changed.

Lindsay said...

@Angelia Sparrow - oh, I agree, it's a great book, and even now it has a lot of relevance.

(I don't remember feeling like I understood my mother or maternal grandmother better after reading it, but their lives were very different from the lives of the women profiled in the book. Maternal grandma was widowed young, and worked almost all her life. Mom was a latchkey kid maybe 30 years before that became a popular phrase, and chose to be a SAHM for her own kids when she had them in her 30s. So she got to decide whether that life was what she wanted, rather than just have it happen to her.)

I'm also glad things have changed for autistic people, though there's still a long way to go! I was diagnosed around 1989, and was mainstreamed in school as much as I possibly could be. I also got extra, outside-of-class help with the things I had trouble with that came naturally to the normal students, and I feel like the quality of Special Ed I received made the difference between me doing really well in school and going on to college and me dropping out, or acting out badly enough that I would've ended up in an alternative school.

(I actually worry somewhat that, with the rise of ABA, younger autistic children aren't given the same kind of individual, customized training that I was, or the same feeling of being a participant in their education that I had. I worry that we might be going back to "human-shaped object" territory.)

Anyway, thanks for reading and commenting!