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Olmsted on Autism: Crimson at Harvard


By Dan Olmsted

Don’t speak ill of the dead, it is said. And also: Rules are made to be broken.

The flags were flying at half-staff at Harvard last week in honor of Dr. Leon Eisenberg, the distinguished researcher who, according to the New York Times, “conducted some of the first rigorous studies of autism, attention deficit disorder and learning delays and became a prominent advocate for children struggling with disabilities.”

Eisenberg worked with Leo Kanner, the discoverer of autism, at Johns Hopkins and, according to The Times, “completed the first detailed, long-term study of children with autism, demonstrating among other things that language problems predicted its severity.”

“In the 1960s, he performed the first scientific drug trials in child psychiatry, testing stimulants like Dexedrine and Ritalin to soothe the behavior of children identified as “delinquent” or “hyperkinetic.” These studies, which became the basis for drug treatment of what is now called attention deficit disorder, ran counter to psychoanalytic theories on the most effective treatments.”

And -- in the 1950s, he wrote some of the nastiest stuff I’ve ever come across in five years of reading about the families of autistic children. “An analysis of the behavior of the fathers of autistic children reveals the evidence of serious personality difficulties that markedly impair the fulfillment of a normal paternal role and that seriously influence the pattern of family living in a detrimental way,” he wrote in “The Fathers of Autistic Children” in 1957 in The American Journal of Orthopsychiatry.

Here is another paragraph no better, no worse than Eisenberg’s typical fare, having looked into the psyches of the fathers of Kanner’s first cases: “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!”

Don’t you love that touch about none being major contributors to their field (not true based on my research)? Oh, and this is nice, too:

“It would seem that they have children, not because they want them, but because children are part of the formal pattern of marriage, an obligation to be assumed. They rear them, if according to any plan, by a caricature of Watsonian behaviorism, a doctrine they find congenial. Such interest as they have in the children is in their capacity as performing automata. Hence, the frequent occurrence among autistic children of prodigious feats of recitation by rote memory. Conformity is demanded; what is sought is the "perfect" child — i.e., one who obeys, who performs, and who makes no demands. The very detachment of the autistic child, so distressing to other observers, has almost always been viewed by the father initially as an asset.”

Now, I’m a believer in apology and forgiveness. This noxious theory was discredited long ago, plenty of time for Dr. Eisenberg to retract it. Perhaps he did, and if so I’m happy to write about it, and to cut him a wide swath. But if he didn’t, I’m hard put to see how he was a prominent advocate for children struggling with autism when he blamed their own fathers for causing it.

Time to raise the flags in Harvard Yard, in my opinion. Leon Eisenberg wasn’t really a major contributor to his field – quite the opposite, in fact.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism.


mary peck

Gatogorra -
The medical "experts" asked my family the same questions. I got the eye roll every time I answered "no". Since we have a child on the spectrum they assumed that we must have "problems at home" and be drug addicts and alcoholics.

Marvin Lewis

I hate to say it , but the late, great J. C. got it right; "Place not thy trust in princes AKA Authority."


Whew. I had no idea. Isn't it fascinating how people can be lionized for doing and saying such hurtful and nonsensical things!



If autism were bad parenting in the 50's my parents would have had 7 very autistic kids.


I cannot begin to understand or feel the pain parents must have when their child is diagnosed with autism. All of the rhetoric of this study and that study, and who says what about autism is bogus. The thought processes are manipulatd and thwarted away from the most important question: What caused my child to develop autism? Ask every parent to look back and see when their child developed this disease. Was it after receiving childhood vaccinations? I don't know the numbers, but I'll bet it's at least 9 out of 10. There is no proof of vaccinations causing autism but I breathe air and I cannot see it. My gut and my faith tells me autism is caused by vaccines.

Roger Kulp

Theresa said:

Who could afford to take his kids to a specialist, back in Eisenberg's day?

Actually a lot of kids did get diagnoses,during this era,after they started school.In a lot of the wealthier school districts,like Baltimore County,kids like me spent much of thier time in school,being pulled out of class to see psychiatrists,etc.

They may not have been the right diagnosis, but they were diagnoses all the same.

Ritalin made me very sick.I was put on it,at the order of one of these psychiatrists in the first grade.Among other things,it gave me a horrible rapid heartbeat.It was probably why in the second year,I was on it,my heart was so weakened,I developed rheumatic fever. Only years later did I learn ritalin seriously weakens the heart.

I was about to say shame on Harvard for honoring this quack,but the crock of bull this guy promoted,is not all that different from the way most (read non-DAN!) doctors treat autism even today,with their SSRIs, antipsychotics,and other worthless forms of psychotherapy.

Good riddance to Eisenberg and his generation.It's a good thing they are dying out.

Kathy Blanco

Now the highly educated don't get their kids vaccinated, and the other non educated do. (I know that's a sweeping generalization, but it's interesting). Perhaps this trend will go to the cool crowd instead of the geeky ones as they mate up (especially the ones that can't answer the on the street interviews about geography or who is your president)? And I wonder, just wonder, if that will finally be the straw that breaks the camels back on this whole autism epidemic thing..the average joe plumber type finally gets it...that vaccines don't bring good things to life and freedom in america is gone...YET, soon after gets addicted to the computer and all these crazy blogs with parents steamed/stressed about the much I would like to think I am a cool person, I can admit openly, that I suddenly became a geek when this autism shit hit the fan....its a matter of survival..because if you remain under that proverbial rock, it really does become a hard place. Still, there are times we all wonder if it would be better for us to not know everything about this disease and it's manipulative minions, and just go on and live life without that guilt guilt guilt feeling that we are not doing enough, or, that the world is still flat or life is SOOO fun...but somehow autism awakenes you to some reality bite moments. Somehow, it is a purger of all selfish thought...suddenly it's all about justice, and mercury (oops I meant mercy), and what is morally right. Maybe that is the grand lesson we are all learning and living. Still's complete bullshit alright. Because these theories still remain in peoples eyes/thought patterns, even in their looks they give if your a genetic accident, a minority, and, well, we can see autism in you, but you can't sort of thing. I have a family history of teachers, philosophers, and musicians and of course the dreaded math heads. One would say from that, we had a touch of autism all along, and never knew it, but I look at it differently. I look at the smart people as having the WORSE immune and metabolic systms (read a paper on that once, it may be true)...and that we are just as vulnerable to toxins and infections as our children.

I will never believe that autism is the result of our personalities...or our choice. We had no choice. We had total and complete trust in the vaccine program, and that toxins don't harm us, and how could this small one hurt your baby's brain? It is in that minutia of damage, that one direct timed event, that all hell can break loose on a it any wonder you put the stiff upper lip on, and forge ahead, seemingly becoming, well, almost emotionaless? What am I suppose to do, cry all the time? (been there, done that). Once you learn, you get busy. And, you get broke, and on it goes...until the truth of this damaged generation is revealed, I will not rest on the laurels of it's my fault, or you had it in your genes...that's just a giant cop out.

Sarah L'Heureux

And what if the mythical genetic marker is discovered? What if it can be determined pre-natally? Will we find the same reduction in autism diagnoses as we did in Down Syndrome births, when amniocentesis and selective abortion become commonplace? Will we wipe out another branch of humanity? Is this The Cure sought by massive, government-funded genetic research?


Who could afford to take his kids to a specialist, back in Eisenberg's day? Wasn't it just generally likely that all of his patients (not just kids with autism) would have highly educated parents? I wonder if pediatric cancer specialists in those days also noted that their patients' parents were wealthy and well-educated. Did they conclude that a college education causes cancer?

Benedetta Stilwell

Jake, my son pulled his hair out when they upped his dose of ritalin
We went a few years without, and now he is on it again. He takes the slow release capsula of adderol only when he drives.
He drives to school two days a week and I just want him aware.
How long has it been since you were on it?
What kind of tics did you have? (if I may be so bold?)
Did you think it helped, any at all?


Pen – sounds like it to me. He also seems to accidentally touch on assortive mating, which could be part of the genetic component. Kind of like vax makers describing how safe everything is, except for a few high fevers and seizures. Good observational data can outlive bad conclusions in constructive ways, I guess.


Great observations, Mark. At the moment, the devastation of autism parents has become a target of convenient industry misinterpretation again, only this time the goal is to "prove" genetics as everyone's figured out by now. We've all seen the endless studies of the depression, mental illness, "shadow autism traits" etc., among families. Even when the studies state that "stress from raising children with autism" had been "ruled out" as a cause for aberrant "mental status" in parents, I don't believe this was really ruled out (particularly if parents began taking antidepresants and sedatives after their chidlren's diagnoses). And of course intergenerational toxic susceptibility is never even considered.

I just filled out a questionaire for a private evaluation of my kids and lo and behold, many of the questions had to do with extended family- whether "mental illness", "problems with the law", "alcoholism", etc. had been noted in relatives. The interesting thing is that after decades and billions spent trying to prove the genetic origins of the particular "conditions" mentioned on the questionaire, none of these things have ever been shown to be genetic-- quite the reverse. That doesn't stop the burgeoning screening industry-- at the behest of the pharmaceutical industry-- from knocking on that door in the hopes of scrapping together marketable "evidence" that can be put towards further discrediting autism families and perhaps broadening another juicy drugging niche. If I were to imagine the pharmaceutical industry were capable of diabolical motives (gasp), in that sense it pays to keep squeezing autism families in every feasible way-- economically crushing them, socially marginalizing them-- in order to expedite the "evidence" of familial pathology.

One thing I always bear in mind about Kanner is that he was most likely being reactionary against the "cacogenic" push to sterilize and even kill mentally ill children in the US that continued even after Nazi genocide had been exposed. He held a very public dialogue with the eugenicist Foster Kennedy, in which Kennedy argued for the "mercy killings" of mentally defective individuals. Kanner protested the movement to "euthanize" children with cognitive impairments, calling instead for the "milk of human kindness". Blaming autism parents at the time coudl almost seem like a desperate way of providing an "exemption" for Kanner's subjects-- saying the condition wasn't genetic and that it could be socially rendered dropped a hint that it might be socially "cured"-- therefore the effected children should not be killed because they weren't "hopeless". Like many people in a reactionary state, he may have believed his own defensive construct.

When the spector of the euthanasia movement had passed, I'm not surprised that Kanner rethought the cold parent theory. Eisenberg had no such excuse to take the stance he did as late as he did.

CT teacher

Amen, Mark

Mark Blaxill

I'd argue that one thing going on with people like Eisenberg (and Kanner as well) is that they were confusing cause and effect. As we all know, dealing with an autistic child can be a devastating experience for parents, at multiple levels. When a child doesn't respond to parental affection, it's only natural for any parent to feel that the child is rejecting them, and they can turn cold as a result. Also, when the parents are struggling with autism, the marriage comes under stress and both parents (early on the fathers disproportionately) can be tempted to turn to their work (to become "obsessed") for their sense of personal satisfaction. Since we know that the early parents were mostly accomplished professionals, many of them had more opportunity to retreat into their work than others might. Finally, for these early parents, there was no diagnostic framework or narrative within which to explain their child's unusual behaviors. So they were not merely rebuffed by the child and stressed in their connection to each other, they were almost certainly frightened and confused as well.

Eisenberg and Kanner (and later Bettelheim) looked at these unhappy parents and jumped to the wrong conclusion. Rather than realizing these devastated people were suffering from the familial shrapnel blast that comes along with autism, they claimed that the parents' unhappiness was a CAUSE of the autism.

The endless foolishness of people who claim they are scientists never ceases to amaze me.

Teresa Conrick

Pen asks:

"Is Eisenberg describing fathers who were Aspie-like?"

No- he is describing other (related) victims of toxic exposure.

Diane Farr

I wonder if Kanner was describing mothers of autistic children as "frigid" not refrigerator.

Kathy Blanco

Back in the stone age on autism, our son was involved in holding therapy, and don't ask how I ever felt that would make things better...but anywho...quickly the investigator of this study told my husband he was cold and unfeeling..this is what caused my sons autism. OK? He is the most loving caring man I know, quick to hugging and sweet kisses of my child...ok? What we saw was a DPT reaction from hell, which instantly changed my sons life in a second. That's what caused his autism. It's not idiopathic, it's real and identifiable reaction to a toxic vaccine, which in labs kills rats and causes seizures, exactly befitting the life my son now enjoys. Anytime a new theory comes along, I measure it against wha tI know to be true in my heart, and in my tests and what is unique with my son and daughter with autism. (daughter was still vaccinated, because we thought the P in DPT was the problem), yes, we sure are wannabes of the vaccine injury hypothesis, but we are also fully aware of the toxins in our environment, the way we birth our babies, and a number of hits which have made the autism landscape so easily gotten...and I am afraid if we don't address those "hits" then, we will still be hit by autism on every neighborhood of our great country. Yes, there is no condoloences or support after your child is injured, it is called acceptible losses, like a casualty count of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.


Another one from Harvard ....

Autism's genetic roots examined in new government-funded study

Researchers at Harvard University and Children's Hospital Boston will sequence the genomes of at least 85 people diagnosed with autism in a bid to tease out the genetic basis for some cases of the neuropsychiatric disorder.

Funded by $4.5 million from the federal stimulus package, the study's broad outlines were unveiled Wednesday.....

...Still, studies of autism in the population find that genes can account for no more than 15% of the numbers of autism cases seen.

The rest are as yet unexplained. Many argue that environmental exposures -- in particular, to preservatives used in certain vaccines -- are a key factor in the development of autism. But a wide range of comprehensive investigations has failed to find such a link.


Is Eisenberg describing fathers who were Aspie-like?

Theodore M. Van Oosbree

That sort of stuff was gospel before Bernard Rimland vaporized it.

Psychiatrist are all nutjobs

Never heard of him. I guess he never rose to the top of his field. What a kook. Won't be missed.


Harks back to the days when the NY Times hailed insulin coma and its inventors for "curing" schizophrenia (shhh, don't mention that 5% of insulin shock patients in the 40s and 50s died from the treatment and many more were left permanently brain damaged).

Eisenberg talked out of both sides of his mouth about his own "contribution" to humanity of forging the randomized controlled drug trial-- not seemingly out of contrite regret but probably territoriality. When reliance on drug treatment threatened his "mother" profession of social psychiatry (i.e., blaming dad in some cases), despite using NIMH funds to launch himself as a premier proponent of Ritalin use in children, Eisenberg critized the drugging industry:
"This whole trend toward giving pills to children as a solution to everything, particularly in the absense of evidence that they work is fundamnetally unethical...It's ddriven by the convenience of doctors, the prifitability of the drug company, and the notion that there is nothing more meaningful to life than biochemistry". He had no one to blame for it more than himself.

Jack R.

Not only am I effing hilarious, but it turns out that now that my boys aren't chronically sick, in pain and poisioned, they are pretty darn funny too.


Makes me wonder about his relationship with his own father, sounds to me like he doth projecteth too much.

Also makes me wonder how many lives he ruined.


It won't be too long before those denying the environmental are widely viewed as delusional as well. However, like Eisenberg, they won't be held accountable for perpetuating a misguided status quo.

Teresa Conrick

Leon Eisenberg sure seemed like a Bettelheim wannabe. He probably would have attacked the mothers more but since that theory was already made-up by another fabricator and hero to the NYT, he had to slam the fathers. These guys had to all get their digs into autism, make some cash off the "idiopathic" diagnosis while they lied through their teeth to make a name for themselves. I can think of a lot of names for them......

How interesting and par for the course that the NYT praises these jerks and offers no condolences to all of the parents of autistic children who have been unjustifiably harmed by theories that have no basis, no merit and are total bullshit.

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