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Autism And Psychoanalysis: Uneasy Bedfellows

The Letter, Issue 28, Summer 2003, Pages 47 - 79


Caroline Noone

Autism and autistic spectrum disorders are characterised, within the psychiatric framework, by a triad of deficits in the area of communication, social development and restricted and repetitive behaviours and interests. Currently, autism is classified as a pervasive developmental disorder, a term that is intended to cover children and adults who have severe lifelong difficulties in social and communicative skills beyond those accounted for by general intellectual delay.[1] In the psychoanalytical field autism is classified as a childhood psychosis. Those who treat autistic children psychoanalytically, speak of psychogenic, (that is, predominantly psychological causes) and of organic, (that is, predominantly biological causes) autism. They differentiate between the Kanner-type of childhood psychosis and the childhood psychosis that most resembles adult schizophrenia.

In 1943 Leo Kanner wrote a seminal article on what he called Early Infantile Autism.[2] This is his description of one child:

There was on his side, no affective tie to people. He behaved as if people as such did not matter or even exist. It made no difference whether one spoke to him in a friendly or harsh way. He never looked at people's faces. Whether he had any dealings with persons at all, he treated them or rather parts of them, as if they were objects.[3]

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