I have been delaying this post, wondering what it will hold. Where it will begin and where it will end up. It is the 200th post for this blog. Not every one of those posts has been on the topic of Autism but the vast majority have been directly or closely associated with Autism and being autistic. This post will be no exception.
The vast majority of these posts have been written within the last 12 months. It has been a time of voluminous writing for me. Perhaps the most content I have produced in a short time frame in my entire life. I am fairly certain the volume of my writing has been more so than my days of writing essays at university even.
I had delayed this post, wondering the topic, wanting it, I suppose to be a quality post, wondering what sort of topic I should cover. Finally I dispensed with the delay and have sat here at my trusty Macbook to begin. Here we are, now, and the topic on my mind is the reality of the where the understanding and realisation of autism, what it is and what it is not, has in large part to do with the so-called father of autism Leo Kanner.
Kanner has been oft credited with the “discovery” of autism. I concede here and now that Kanner contributed greatly to autism thought, however I believe he was also largely responsible for years of misunderstanding and misinformation in both the autism world and the wider community. He is a pivotal factor in the struggle for recognition and acceptance that adult autistics experience throughout their lives.
Furthermore his actions, I believe, were also instrumental in the failure of several generation of autistics to be diagnosed during their formative years. Autistics who are just now and in recent years, being diagnosed in their 30’s, 40’s, 50’s and yes even 60’s.
It is clear that Kanner was responsible for a lot of humanitarian deeds during his lifetime and for that he should be applauded, not least of which was the saving of many from the holocaust of the Nazi regime. These wonderful feats should not however, excuse the actions he took in order to frame the autism conversation at the time purely in favour of his own professional reputation.
There are two specifically abhorrent actions that Kanner took that have been detrimental to the autism conversation and understanding. The first being his active ignoring of the work of Hans Asperger and his team in Vienna. The second being the branding of the parents of autistics as the blame, allowing the coining of the phrase “refrigerator mothers”. Both of these have done significant harm to autistics over a long period of time.
Kanner acted to present his paper on autism, naming it then infantile autism, as though he was the only one in the psychiatric community to be looking into the area. This is patently wrong, and clearly deceptive. It is impossible that Kanner could have been unaware of the work of Hans Asperger. It is true that due to the nature of the times, that Asperger’s work was published later than Kanner’s. It was still impossible that Kanner would be unaware of Asperger’s work as Kanner himself had people working in his clinic who had worked with Asperger. It is utterly unimaginable that these colleagues would have failed to mention Asperger to him.
I have just touched on Kanner’s actions here. For a far fuller account see Silberman’s wonderful Neurotribes. The result of Kanner’s manoeuvres resulted in two significant assumptions that unfortunately remained unchallenged for far too long. Firstly, autism was a rare disease, and two that it was a childhood phenomenon only. What Kanner thought happened to these children as they grew I do not know.
Generations of autistic children grew up to be autistic adults. They are autistic whether diagnosed or not, and guess what Dr Kanner they are still autistic. Go figure.
The second aspect here is the coining of the term “refrigerator mothers”, whilst I don’t believe Kanner coined it himself he did absolutely nothing to dispel it. He never dissociated himself from it. His own patient notes gave the very idea credence as he talked of cold parenting being responsible for the autism of the children.
On discovering Kanner’s connection with this issue, I have wondered about the connection between this and the warrior autism mom phenomenon we now see. Is it possible that the autism mom warrior mentality has subconsciously arisen from the false and ridiculous claim that refrigerator mothers were the cause of autism and therefore there is a subconscious need for parents of autistic children to fight with all they have against such an assertion, even though it is now rarely spoken.
No Dr Kanner, I am not autistic due to my parents cold parenting, I am autistic because my parents had sex and conceived me.
Thankfully and wonderfully Hans Asperger’s work eventually came to light and these generations of autistic people are able to know that they are not sick, broken, disordered, vaccine injured or pathogen infested. In the wake of Rain Man and the translation of Asperger’s work autistics like myself and my children are able to understand who we are, why we are like we are and to know the freedom we find in understanding that we are not in fact broken, we are in fact just different.
The development and growth we have seen since Asperger’s work came to light has been astronomical. Thankfully the concept of autistics being thrown into institutions to rot is a thing of the past. Even within the hysteria of anti-vaccination claims, and pseudo science declaring epidemic and the media happily going along for the ride, the debate has moved on. The understanding has progressed, many in society are able to accept autism as a neurological difference and embrace the idea that autistic people are different not less.
Imagine if Kanner had not acted to ignore the work of Asperger. Imagine how much further along the road to acceptance we would be. Imagine how much more embraced the neurodiversity paradigm would be.
No Dr Kanner you were not the father of Autism, far from it.