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Thursday, February 9, 2012

Enough With The Bettelheim Bullshit.

There's a guy currently enraging members of the autism community world wide by the name of  (Dr) Tony Humphreys. His misdeeds are covered comprehensively in the posts below by fellow blogger Sharon at The Family Voyage (with thanks).

The reason for the outrage is obvious. Humphreys makes claims about parents of autistic children and autistic people based on nothing other than pontificating self delusion. It is clear he knows very little about autism from direct experience or research. If he did he would realise how out of step with current knowledge his views are.

So I want to blog about professionals who do more harm than good.

I used to work in the human services field. For over a decade I was a social worker with some of the most complex and challenging client groups. For five years I worked with women in the process of leaving prison to assist them in integrating back into the community. It was an intensive and complex work load that required knowledge of drug use issues, mental health, child protection, family and domestic violence, and trauma amongst others. Because of the broad scope of areas I supported the women in navigating I also worked alongside and liaised with other human service providers, many of whom were psychiatrists, psychologists and of course social workers.

I also taught social work students at university for a while. I would question these students at the start of each term with, why do you want to be a social worker? Almost invariably the response is, to help people. The obvious question then arises from this, why? Clearly there are many reasons why people feel compelled to help others, often very good ones. There are also those I've encountered many times throughout my career who were not motivated by the purest of intentions, although I doubt they were conscious of the fact.

Carl Jung wrote about the 'shadow' self, and the fact we project onto others those aspects of ourselves we want to deny. Projection and transference of thoughts and emotions is a common occurrence in professions where you work with people in exploring their feelings. And when people are asked to lay bare their deepest fears and truths in a therapeutic setting there is a undeniable degree of power held by the therapist. And therein lies the attraction for some who come to the human services/counselling profession. If you often feel impotent in your personal life then you may seek to regain a sense of power by working with people who are willing to be vulnerable to you. Or are vulnerable simply by way of their life situation, such as poverty, mental illness, disability or trauma. If your client or patient goes on to do well you can feel a sense of omnipotence by falsely allocating all credit to yourself for the positive outcome, rather than the person doing the hard yards. You can get high on the delusion you are capable of changing peoples lives, rather than accepting you are nothing more than a facilitator.

So what happens when these professionals feel they are not being effective in their work, given how invested they are in having clients be 'successful' as an extension of their own perceived power? They can become angry and resentful. Rather than acknowledge their frustration they project outward onto their clients/patients or even whole groups of people. It's actually easy to do and is one reason we have professional supervision, to catch and address this risk. I knew professionals who engaged in this kind of behaviour. Though had it been pointed out to them they would no doubt be both horrified and defensive, as is the nature of the 'shadow'.

So to Mr Humphrey's. One can only wonder if his outrageous claims in combination with his audaciousness to speak so publicly reflects some 'shadow' issues. There's a level of wilful ignorance that requires a deeper explanation than simple misunderstanding. His words are a direct challenge to the love and care of millions of parents around the world. There is no compassion or understanding of the struggles parents raising autistic children face. Or how those with autism may feel in reading his statements. His thoughts are in direct contradiction to ideas of empathy and validation of the lived experiences of so many.

Autistic people can be easy targets. Many are in no position to defend themselves and their families. However it's not so easy to fire a cheap shot at parents and expect to get away with it. The idea that parenting styles are to blame for the development of autism has had its day. The doctor who promlugated that idea, Bruno Bettlehiem, was wrong, yet caused untold damage before finally being challenged and his theory relegated to history's rubbish bin, alongside the idea of a flat earth. There is no way the autism community will accept the possibility of that anachronistic crap being sprouted again, and quite frankly I think the paper who printed Humphreys assertions are being disingenuous when they claim, as they did, it's an issue of free speech.

Newspapers are in the business of selling papers, they knew this article would be highly controversial, as it is, and therefore push up their online views. So we can't expect media outlets to behave with the integrity we might hope for. They will always provide space for those on the fringes because it's good for the bottom line $$. What I think is required in the case of Mr Humphreys is the professional body responsible for registration of psychologists in Ireland (if there is such a thing) should make public a statement against the claims he made. To ensure he, and others like him, are cast into the professional wilderness by peers and colleagues. Tainting any scrap of credibility they may have in order to prevent their ideas and practices harming those who deserve better.


  1. The re-emergent Bettelheim is indeed a scary and dangerous thing, both to us as parents and to our children in terms of the best treatment and services for them. This view of autism being caused by parents - and more generally autism being treatable by "talk therapy" and psychoanalysis - hasn't died off as fully as it deserves to have; places like France still holding a flame for it and the often horrendous treatments associated with the psychoanalytic approach to autism (packing for regression to infancy, for example). So posts like yours that hold these unprofessionals up to the light, are so important.

    (I've been reading a book about the history of autism that talks a lot about the historical accidents that lead to such a strong view about autism being the parents fault and nothing to do with biology and genetics. Once I've finished it I'll do a review post on my blog; I think you'd find it an interesting read, though considering your background I'm guessing you're already quite familiar with the ideas.)

  2. I'll look forward to that post A&O. Yes the situation in France is diabolical. It's hard to comprehend with all the autism research going on world wide currently that people can still hold to such antiquated notions. Most frustrating when they are then given space to ramble in the mainstream media.