When Roy Richard Grinker’s daughter Isabel was diagnosed with autism in 1994, the condition was considered rare. It was thought to affect three in every 10,000 children. Now, the rate is closer to one in 100. Many see this rise as evidence of a catastrophic epidemic. Grinker, controversially, sees it as a cause for optimism.
Grinker is an American anthropologist. Unstrange Minds is both a memoir of life with Isabel and a survey of the way autism is interpreted worldwide. His view is that autism has always existed in every society and that the numbers have probably been fairly constant. We in the West perceive an epidemic because knowledge and awareness of autism has improved so vastly in the last 15 years that it is now spotted in cases which in the past would have been misdiagnosed or ignored. The ‘epidemic’, therefore, is a symptom of social and medical progress. Being able to identify the problem gives us a head start in learning how to cope with it.
More subtly, Grinker argues that attitudes to autism reflect the current values and preoccupations of society. In 1960s America psychoanalytic theory was more powerful than it is now, so that the psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim’s erroneous view that autism was caused by cold, unresponsive parenting, which he argued all too persuasively in The Empty Fortress, was uncritically accepted. This did untold damage to families already battered by the difficulties of raising an autistic child. Galloping progress in genetic research and brain scanning techniques has since proved that autism is a congenital condition and that the autistic brain has significant structural abnormalities. What causes a foetal brain to develop in this way is not yet fully understood, but at least ‘refrigerator mothers’ are no longer blamed.