1950s and Autism Treatment

As I mentioned previously, Mom remembered that Michael, my older autistic brother was at the Bronx Developmental Center for a little while in the mid to late 1950s. She would schlep there twice a day, once to drop him off and then to pick him up.

The ‘state of the art’ thinking of the medical establishment in the 1950s and 60s was that autism was psychogenic and not biogenic in nature. That is, autism was not caused by biological factors but rather by the psychological environment in the home. The famous term, ‘refrigerator mother’ was used derisively to blame parents for establishing a cold, barren environment in which their child was raised. A child in this environment would allegedly develop autism as a result. There were many flaws to this argument including evidence that siblings raised in the same environment did not uniformly develop autism.

1950s therapies

I’m still researching this topic, but I found a reference on another blog that refers to ‘parentectomy’ [1] as the approach favored by Bruno Bettelheim. He believed firmly that the mother was to blame and recommended that the child be removed from that environment. Bettelheim’s legacy is controversial and beyond the scope of this post. He figured prominently in the debate in the 1950s through the 1960s but his ideas were discredited.

Patterning was another therapy developed in the late 1950s. I remember that Mom told me about it back then. She said that it consisted of a number of people moving the subject’s limbs in patterns, and it was supposed to help.

Mom was probably referring to Doman-Delacato patterning therapy (DDPT), developed in the 1940s and 1950s by a team consisting of a physical therapist, a neurosurgeon, a physiatrist, and a psychologist. “Its core assumption is that brain damage causes a blockage in the normal pattern of brain development. The consequences of this blockage can allegedly be eliminated through ‘patterning’ therapy exercises that supposedly rewire the brain.” [2]

The underlying theory of this method was an extension of the biological theory that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. This theory held that during the growth of a fetus it repeats each stage of evolution. Doman and Delacato asserted that sensory or motor patterns could be applied to brain-damaged individuals to correct the ontogeny, or development of the nervous system. In his review of DDPT, Hines noted: 1) the view that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny has been ‘long-discredited’; and 2) Doman et. al were factually wrong in their description of brain organization. [3]

Hines’s concluded that DDPT was not supported by theory or results and therefore should not be considered a credible treatment. [4] Other sources agree. [5] [6]

What therapies did Mike actually have?

Honestly, I can’t imagine. In the 1950s, Mike was not away from the family for an extended period of time. Mom told me that patterning was very expensive and wasn’t that effective. She knew that even back then.

Maybe I’ll talk to her and she’ll be able to give me some more clues about the therapy my brother had.

If any of you know of therapies used back in the 1950s for low functioning individuals with autism, I’d appreciate knowing what they were. Thanks.


[1] Durbin, B & Mandas, K. Evolution of the Treatments of Autism  http://bdkmsw.umwblogs.org/what-is-autism/aba-therapy/ web: downloaded 9-4-13

[2] Hines, T.M. The Doman-Delacato Patterning Treatment for Brain Damage. Sci. Rev. of Alt. Med. 5(2) Spring 2001 pg 80

[3] Ibid pg 80

[4] Ibid pg88

[5] Novella, S. Psychomotor Patterning The Connecticut Skeptic Vol.1 Issue 4 (Fall ’96) pg 6 from Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice (SRMHP) http://srmhp.org/archives/patterning.html web: downloaded 9-4-13

[6] Barrett, S. Mental Help: Procedures to Avoid http://www.quackwatch.com/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/mentserv.html

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