The Etiology of Autism

  • Suzanne Steffenburg
  • Christopher Gillberg


Leo Kanner, in 1972 claimed that from his “first publication to the last” he had spoken of autism “in no uncertain terms as innate” (Kanner, 1972). Yet, Time magazine in 1960 had quoted the same Kanner as saying “that children with infantile autism were the offspring of highly organized professional parents, cold and rational, who just happened to defrost long enough to produce a child”. Kanner was ambivalent about the etiology of autism, and in this he was not alone. Since his time there have been a great many etiological theories which have basically assumed that the infant was normal at birth and attribute its development of symptoms to poor nurturing, particulary poor mothering. The literature on parents was reviewed in 1978 by McAdoo and DeMyer who concluded that as a group, parents of autistic children 1) display no more signs of mental or emotional disorder than parents whose children have “organic” disorders, with or without psychosis, 2) do not have extreme personality traits such as coldness, obsessiveness, social anxiety or rage, and 3) do not possess specific deficits in infant and child care. Since then, no sound studies making use of adequate controls have been published which provide support for the notion that parents of autistic children have been “socially” involved in the etiology or pathogenetic mechanisms of their child’s disorder. Instead, evidence has accumulated (Folstein & Rutter, 1977; Steffenburg et al., 1989) in favour of hereditary factors operating in certain cases of autism. It could be that “old” observations about a connection between “cold” parents and children with autism in certain families were correct. However, the appropriate interpretation might be that “Asperger-type” problems in the parent are linked genetically and not socially to autism (Wolff et al., 1988; Gillberg, 1989).


Developmental Disorder Autistic Child Tuberous Sclerosis Asperger Syndrome Williams Syndrome 
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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 1989

Authors and Affiliations

  • Suzanne Steffenburg
  • Christopher Gillberg

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