Moving Beyond Bettelheim

Bruno Bettelheim (1903-1990)

Above photo: Bruno Bettelheim (1903-1990)

By: Angela Escobar
According to the results of Bettelheim’s work and my own experiences, allowing people the freedom and respect to come around in their own good time can be empowering to the individual because we are not taking away from his or her own unique growth and developmental processes. 
Regardless of what Bruno Bettelheim’s theories were based upon (if you’ve read about the history of Psychology, you’ll gather that most, if not all of the discipline’s now scientifically-proven concepts were once purely philosophical—based upon a sole thought, a mere observation, or a remarkable experience). I feel that Bettelheim’s views hold some validity and can be used to formulate stronger, scientifically based, clinically proven, practical concepts.  We are all standing on the shoulders of giants, after all, and therefore can find some usefulness in even Bettelheim’s theories.  In Bettelheim’s written works, he expressed that children experiencing autism should be surrounded by great love, care, and acceptance so that they are able to develop a sense of trust in people and in the environment, and therefore take some sort of autonomous action.  Also, Bettelheim holds the view that children should be respected as human beings, and this includes their symptoms (whatever they may be), as these symptoms may be coping mechanisms utilized by the child to relieve discomfort and/or distress.  The only time any of Bettelheim’s staff (at the Orthogenic School) stepped in was to protect the child from harming himself.  Bettelheim theorized that we should not try to pull the child out of his reality and into ours, but attempt to simply be with the child in his or her reality, so that we can gain a better understanding of how it is to really and truly be in their shoes (recall that Bettelheim’s work is principally phenomenological).  This phenomenological approach would gradually make the child feel comfortable and trusting enough to being interacting with his/her environment.
Treating a person with love, care, acceptance, respect, allowing them the freedom to simply be themselves in their own reality (however it makes sense to them) are all concepts that I am very familiar with as they are implemented in various programs within the mental health system for people of all ages and from all walks of life.  For example, I’m a certified peer support specialist here in Texas, and peer support is based upon these basic concepts—we use them in our day-to-day interactions with peers.  When I was a care manager at a local assisted living facility, working with individuals experiencing memory loss and dementia, I was trained to “join them on their journey” instead of patronizing and/or correcting them (pulling them into my own reality just because I was uncomfortable with their behavior, for example).  Based solely from my own experiences working with people, I can safely say that this simple approach can be quite effective.  It may seem ridiculous (or even feel uncomfortable) to us to allow a person to engage in behaviors we see as abnormal or unusual, but to that person, it may be necessary to cope, to heal, to relieve, or to express themselves—this is what Bettelheim and his staff practiced at the Orthogenic School. According to the results of Bettelheim’s work and my own experiences, allowing people the freedom and respect to come around in their own good time can be empowering to the individual because we are not taking away from his or her own unique growth and developmental processes.
Bettelheim’s phenomenological approach in caring for children with autism could prove to be helpful in therapeutic settings and even in the home.  It doesn’t require years of formal training to acquire any specialized skills, a college degree, a large bank account, nor does it require any type of fancy equipment.  As simple and effective as his approach may seem however, it was far from a miracle cure—in fact, according to Bettelheim’s written works, it took around five years (sometimes longer) for any noted progress to truly take place, but he found success with about four-fifths of the children at the Orthogenic School.
Perhaps Bettelheim proposed ideas which have now long been discredited, such as the “refrigerator mother” theory, but during Bettelheim’s time, when research lacked in the areas of brain abnormalities and neurological disorders/diseases in children, it may have been simply a notion which was misconstrued, a notion offered in an effort to understand a very complex issue.  In fact, even now that research efforts have further delved into various possible factors—including infections, diet, neuro-chemical abnormalities, and genetics—there is still no hard evidence that points to any one as being the sole cause of autism.   While it is now determined that autism is a neurological dysfunction and not a social or psychological one, the real and true cause of autism continues to be shrouded in mystery.
Bettelheim was a complicated individual whose actions sometimes contradicted his philosophies, but that his odd personality and lack of solid credentials (even Erik Erikson never earned his formal college degree) should not be the reason we lose sight of the basic concepts he offered on children and autism.  Bettelheim has been criticized for his failing to attempt to gather any scientifically-based evidence aside to his impressions.  Despite this, we must not lose focus on the advancement of science: Bettelheim’s basic core concepts can be implemented, incorporated, or even built upon in modern research efforts progressively and scientifically, to help us in our quest to understand autism and mental illness/health.  Let us take what can be useful and move forward.


Crain, W. (2005). Theories of development: Concepts and applications (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Dehnavi, S. R., Malekpour, M., Faramarzi, S., & Talebi, H. (2011). The share of internalized stigma and autism quotient in predicting the mental health of mothers with autism children in Iran. International Journal of Business and Social Science, 2(20), 251-259. Retrieved from

Emeritus Senior Living. (2013). Join their journey: A family-centered approach to memory care [PDF Brochure]. Retrieved from

ViaHope. (2014). Certified peer specialist student manual. Austin, TX: ViaHope Texas Mental Health Resources in partnership with the University of Texas, Center for Social Work Research and the Texas Department of State Health Services.

This entry was posted in Case Studies, Human Potential, Mental Health, Peer and Social Support, Personal Growth and Development, Philosophy, Psychology-General, Society and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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