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.