This book explains the current fascination with autism by linking it to a longer history of childhood development. Drawing from a staggering array of primary sources, it traces autism back to its origins in the early twentieth century and explains why the idea of autism has always been controversial and why it experienced a 'metamorphosis' in the 1960s and 1970s. The book locates changes in psychological theory in Britain in relation to larger shifts in the political and social organisation of schools, hospitals, families and childcare. It explores how government entities have dealt with the psychological category of autism. The book looks in detail at a unique children's 'psychotic clinic' set up in London at the Maudsley Hospital in the 1950s. It investigates the crisis of government that developed regarding the number of 'psychotic' children who were entering the public domain when large long-stay institutions closed. The book focuses on how changes in the organisation of education and social services for all children in 1970 gave further support to the concept of autism that was being developed in London's Social Psychiatry Research Unit. It also explores how new techniques were developed to measure 'social impairment' in children in light of the Seebohm reforms of 1968 and other legal changes of the early 1970s. Finally, the book argues that epidemiological research on autism in the 1960s and 1970s pioneered at London's Institute of Psychiatry has come to define global attempts to analyse and understand what, exactly, autism is.
Perceiving, describing and modelling child development
clarification. The Metamorphosis of Autism
seeks to explain why this is the case.
If diagnostic changes have occurred over time, the
historical reasons for these changes and their relation to wider
theories of child development are still little understood. Sociologists,
journalists, philosophers, literary critics and others have offered
different explanations as to why more people are now diagnosed with
with a statement or an Education, Health and Care
Plan. In 2016, there were 57,211. 1
As this book has argued, the metamorphosis of the autism
concept occurred following radical changes in the construction of child
rights in the late 1950s. The integration and education of large groups
of children who had previously been excluded from the education system,
and from society at large, led to the creation
stability. However, this had only occurred in
the context of major interventions in child rights that had taken
place in the name of psychology.
The political landscape for the study of
The first autism, prior to its
metamorphosis in the 1960s, was an important organising concept
within early theories of child development. The
impairments of social interaction affect social
interaction – but it was a tautology that enabled a new
science of psychology to develop. The metamorphosis of autism meant
that tests for sensory impairment, perceptual problems and language
disorder were reframed as problems of social interaction. A number
of different kinds of impairment hence became ‘social
impairments’. The allure of
process of diagnosis. These
new concepts and tools were enabling a widespread statistically
validated crushing criticism of the first autism and the creation of
a new set of quantitative tools that promised to give meaning to the
second autism in its new metamorphosis. As we saw in Chapter 5 , these tools had been developed by
a group of researchers in Britain who sought to challenge ‘the Tavistock programme
Most people are aware of many controversies surrounding autism today, as well as those that abounded in the 1960s asserting the fault of mothers in causing the condition. At the British Psychoanalytic Society, other controversial discussions ensued over how to describe the development of subjectivity in infants and children. Although the precise concept of 'autism' was rarely mentioned, the descriptive concepts of 'autoerotism' and 'primary narcissism', a term that had been developed by Sigmund Freud as a response to Bleuler's concept of autism, were discussed frequently. When considering the impact of child psychologists on British childcare policy, it is hard to underestimate the significance of John Bowlby. His work was so influential that historians have since referred to the phenomenon of 'Bowlbyism' as a wide-ranging social tendency to support the place of mothers in the home environment.
The 1950s were turbulent, dramatic and provocative times for people interested in social change and its impact on child psychology. The 1950s was an important decade for psychological research that took 'society' and social causes within its remit. By the early 1950s, children classed with 'psychosis', 'schizophrenia' and 'autism' stood at the heart of controversies over the social and emotional development of children. The Maudsley psychotic clinic was founded partly to get 'childhood psychosis' recognised as a legal category and also to reinforce the role of medically trained child psychiatrists in determining the treatment that 'psychotic' children received. All of the children in the psychotic clinic were given a battery of tests on arrival in order to determine their physiological functions and their levels of intellectual and social development. Tests could help to build a picture of the child's internal conceptual framework and his sensory-motor functions.
This chapter examines the radical transformation of autism. It examines why the shift in meaning occurred by placing it into the context of legal and political changes in Britain concerning the rights of children, and the impact of these changes on the construction of scientific studies of children. In order to effect a major shift in the meaning of autism, there also had to be a major shift in the organisation of social life. In the 1960s, a new psychology of autism was used to challenge the social ideology of intervening in, and supposedly rectifying, child 'maladjustment'. The 1960s witnessed a revived interest in questions highlighted by earlier developmental psychologists concerning the primacy of sense perceptions in the development of early thought. In an international study group on infantile autism in 1970, a number of researchers put forward proposals for the central 'cognitive disorder' from which infantile autism developed.