Science  /  Explainer

A Little Spectrum-y

What the autism diagnosis says about you.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the dominant explanation for autism was the “refrigerator mother” theory, which held that emotionally neglectful caregivers caused their children to develop autism. The term came from Kanner, who in a 1948 Time magazine article used it to describe parents who keep their children “neatly in a refrigerator which didn’t defrost.” But it was popularized by the public intellectual Bruno Bettelheim, who talked it up everywhere from The Dick Cavett Show to The New York Times. Bettelheim had no formal psychiatric or medical training, but he was from Vienna and willing to omit enough details (and falsify enough credentials) to fit the image of a Freudian expert. A Holocaust survivor who had launched his career with an article on the psychology of Nazi concentration camps, Bettelheim compared autistic children to his fellow prisoners in Dachau and Buchenwald in his 1967 bestseller The Empty Fortress

By the 1980s, autistic people were no longer seen as the results of bad parenting or genocidal dehumanization. Instead, they were viewed as inherently inhuman. Psychologists had described autistic children as “unable to achieve empathy” as early as 1962, but it was the English psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen — a cousin of Sacha’s — who popularized the understanding of autism as an “empathy deficit.” In a 1985 study, Baron-Cohen, along with Alan Leslie and Uta Frith, argued that to be autistic is to lack a theory of mind, or the recognition that other people have their own internal worlds. A theory of mind is what allows us to reflect on others’ mental states, and therefore to empathize. It is, according to Baron-Cohen, “one of the quintessential abilities that makes us human.” 

Though Baron-Cohen has since specified that autistic people only lack cognitive empathy (recognizing what others are thinking or feeling) but display affective empathy (responding emotionally to what others are thinking or feeling), the idea that autistics lack all empathy persisted decades later. “It’s as if they do not understand or are missing a core aspect of what it is to be human; to be and do like others and absorb their values,” psychologist Bryna Siegel, then director of the Autism Clinic, University of California, San Francisco, told USA Today in 2002. In his 2002 book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker compared autistic people to “robots and chimpanzees,” categorizing all three as groups that lack a theory of mind and are therefore incapable of cultivating culture, a fundamental human ability.