The history of autism is, in part, a history of myths: of myths enshrined as facts by medical experts, of myths shaping societal attitudes towards a highly complex condition, and eventually, of myths debunked by further investigation. This cycle has repeated itself over and over again through the decades, often to disastrous effect on the lives of autistic people and their families.
One of the first myths was propagated by one of the men credited with identifying autism, child psychiatrist Leo Kanner. As I discovered writing my book NeuroTribes, Kanner was a controversial figure – for starters, his claims to have discovered autism first are unfounded; others who came before him deserve more credit. He was also wrong about several other crucial things. In 1948, Kanner blamed his patients’ parents in Time magazine for triggering autism in their children by failing to offer them love and nurture. The image of the “refrigerator mother” proved indelible in the public imagination, and as a result, two generations of autistic children were warehoused in institutions, subjected to harsh punishment, restraint and brutal experimental “treatments.”