What the psychiatrists said
The moral panic surrounding autism leads people to look for scapegoats in all sorts of areas. Long before the media whipped up a furore about vaccinations and mercury, autism used to be seen as a purely psychiatric phenomenon and was blamed on ‘refrigerator mothers’. Yet right from the beginning, this theory was questioned by psychiatrists… who felt they ought to blame the father.
The psychiatric literature is rife with studies of childhood disabilities in which detailed and particular attention is given to personality traits in the mother presumed relevant to the disorder in her child. […]
This study of the fathers of autistic children was undertaken in an effort to contribute to a broader view of the family dynamics related to the personality development of the child. Special emphasis has been placed on those personality characteristics which involve the ability to form meaningful relationships with other people and which influence marital and parent-child configurations. […]
The results to be reported are based on a careful review of the material recorded in the case histories about family structure. Since, from the first, certain unusual aspects of the family unit had been noted.
This 1956 psychiatric study of autism examined 100 families of autistic children, looking for signs of unusual personality typing in the father.
After recounting a number of cases describing adult fathers who obviously had undiagnosed, unpathologised asperger’s syndrome, the authors go on to write this:
The characteristics exemplified in these illustrative vignettes recur with monotonous regularity in 85 of the fathers in this series of 100. They tend to be obsessive, detached and humorless individuals. An unusually large number have college degrees, as do their wives. Though intellectually facile, they are not original thinkers. Perfectionistic to an extreme, they are pre-occupied with detailed minutiae to the exclusion of concern for over-all meanings. Thus, though a number are scientists, none is a major contributor to his field. They have a capacity for concentration on their own pursuits amidst veritable chaos about them. One father, in describing this feature in himself, cited as an example the prototypical behavior of his own father who, in the midst of a train wreck, was discovered by a rescue squad working away at a manuscript while seated in a railroad car tilted 20 degrees from the vertical!
Rather unpleasant put-downs and mischaracterisations aside, what we can conclude from this is that 85% of the autistic children studied had fathers with asperger’s syndrome. Being typical psychiatrists, the authors imply that it is ‘refrigerator fathers’ who are responsible for autistic children.
For purposes of comparison, a brief survey was made of the fathers of a control group of 50 private patients. These men had achieved levels of educational and professional attainment that were measurably lower. Far more striking, however, was the absence of the coldly mechanical attitude toward child rearing and the formalistic approach to marriage so widespread in the autistic group. This is to be contrasted with the total absence of overt psychosis among fathers of autistic children; indeed, only one was alcoholic and one other had exhibited an acute anxiety neurosis. This differs sharply from the experience of Bender with the fathers of schizophrenic children.
Predictably, the neurotypical children have neurotypical fathers. And the schizophrenic children have fathers who are more prone to psychosis.
At the same time, it should be noted that in 15 of the 100 fathers in this series, the usual pattern was not at all in evidence. They were described as warm, giving and devoted. While it is true that in 11 of these instances there was obvious maternal psychopathology, there remain 4 families in which neither parent exhibited such qualities.
So fifteen fathers were normal. But in eleven of those cases, there was “obvious maternal psychopathology”. I presume this means the mothers had asperger’s syndrome instead! Only in four families did the parents both appear neurotypical. Since asperger’s syndrome and autism appear to be caused by a combination of genes and increased homozygosity of those genes, it is not hard to see how those four ostensibly neurotypical parents could have, by chance, had autistic children.
The paper ends with an amusing cautionary note:
Equally disturbing for any theory of a simple one-to-one correlation between parental attitudes and children’s behavior is the observation that of 131 known siblings of our 100 children only 8 gave evidence of an emotional disorder, 3 of whom were autistic. That is to say, the fathers of autistic progeny were capable of rearing an equal number of normal offspring. Caution is indicated before implicating the characteristics of these parents too exclusively in the genesis of the disorder in their children, although it is difficult to believe that such gross distortions in paternal behavior were without effect on the development of these children.
Well, this looks like a roughly 50/50 chance of siblings having autism to me. It totally blasts the theory of refrigerator-anything as the cause of autism. It is, however, consistent with a genetic theory of autism.