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Perspect Biol Med. 2019;62(4):690-709. doi: 10.1353/pbm.2019.0040.

Frosted Intellectuals: How Dr. Leo Kanner Constructed the Autistic Family.

Abstract

Dr. Leo Kanner, in his delineation of autism as a clinical entity, is also remembered for having created a powerful stereotype of parents of autistic children as highly educated, intelligent, and emotionally distant. As historians have come to understand that autism arose out of a preceding diagnosis, childhood schizophrenia, it has also become clear that the so-called "refrigerator mother" caricature arose out of the preceding notion of the cold "schizophrenogenic" mother. However, this does not explain Kanner's belief that parents (fathers as well as mothers) were highly educated and intelligent. This study is the first to compare Kanner's famous published case studies with case records of his patients in the Phipps Clinic at Johns Hopkins in order to discover how this stereotype was created. Contrary to his assertion in the published literature, Kanner did indeed see patients with autism whose parents who did not fit his stereotype, but he did not publish these cases. Kanner's stereotype of the "autistic parent" thus seems to have arisen through a process of confirmation bias. This continues to have ramifications to the present day, by linking autism in the popular mind to highly educated and professional parents, and by leading patients with nonstereotypical patients to go unrecognized.

PMID:
31761801
DOI:
10.1353/pbm.2019.0040

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