Regarded as one of the leading psychoanalysts of the post-Second World War era in his time and a fervent champion of psychogenesis, Bruno Bettelheim is best known for his work in the study of emotionally disturbed children. Disseminating ideas deeply-rooted in Freudian thought, Bettelheim rejected the use of medication and shock therapy for children with behaviour and emotional disorders, maintaining that, through extended psychoanalytic therapy, they could be effectively treated.
Born in Vienna in 1903, from a young age, Bettelheim took an avid interest in psychoanalysis, in particular, the psychoanalytic revolution that stemmed from Sigmund Freud’s work in the Austro-Hungarian capital. He briefly attended the University of Vienna to train as a psychologist, before cutting short his studies to return to the family’s lumber business following his father’s death. The rise of the Nazi Party in Austria forced him to flee to the United States, to which en route he was detained in two concentration camps at Dachau and Buchenwald due to his Jewish heritage. He documented these experiences, which lasted nearly a year, in his seminal work, Individual and Mass Behaviour in Extreme Situations (1943), examining human adaptability and the effects on personality brought about by the extreme conditions of the concentration camps.
In 1944, he was put in charge of the University of Chicago’s Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School where he came into contact with children harbouring serious emotional and behavioural problems. It was during his time there that he produced some of his most important work on the subject of autistic children. In his writings, Bettelheim explored methods for relieving the turmoil and emotional suffering of disturbed children to allow them to operate as useful and functional people in society.
His 1967 book, The Empty Fortress, addresses what he believes to be the root causes of autism and communicates his theory of psychogenesis. For Bettelheim, infants suffered from abnormal development when they were forced to take shelter from the cruelty and indifference of their parents, in particular, that of hostile mothers. Without the due care and love required to develop into an independent person, the child’s growth process stalled before it had even begun. He concluded that no matter how bright or sensitive these children were, autism was the result.
The approach he put forward to mitigate the problem was considered revolutionary at the time, not least because autism had been largely regarded as a congenital and incurable disorder up until that point. Bettelheim proposed replacing drugs and shock therapy with a treatment involving total residential care, psychotherapy, acceptance, love and a dedicated team of staff. With this approach, he claimed that many of the autistic children treated at the school recovered fully or partially by regaining the autonomy denied to them early in life. In short, he had helped them to find a ‘self’.
While much of Bettelheim’s credibility has come into question since his death in March 1990, the prevailing impact he has had on the field of residential treatment for severely emotionally disturbed children and the development of Freudian theories in relation to child psychiatry cannot be denied.
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