How Was Autism Treated In The 1950s?

How Was Autism Treated In The 1950s?
How Was Autism Treated In The 1950s?

In the 1950s, how was autism treated? Well, back then, our understanding of autism was quite different from what it is today. Therapies and approaches used in the 1950s may surprise you! So, let’s take a trip back in time to explore how people with autism were supported.

Imagine a world with limited knowledge about autism and how it affects individuals. In the 1950s, there were no standardized treatments or therapies specifically designed for autism. Doctors and experts were still trying to understand what autism even was. It was a time of discovery and experimentation.

During this era, treatments for autism often focused on behavior modification. Some professionals believed in strict behavioral interventions, while others used psychoanalysis or institutionalized care. The approaches varied and often lacked a scientific basis, as our understanding of autism was still in its infancy. But fascinatingly, these early attempts paved the way for the development of more effective treatments in the years to come.

Now, let’s dive deeper into the methods used to treat autism in the 1950s and explore how they have evolved over time.

Exploring Autism Treatment in the 1950s: A Historical Perspective

Autism was little understood and often misdiagnosed in the 1950s, leading to various approaches to its treatment. During this time, there was a lack of knowledge about autism spectrum disorders, and the prevailing belief was that it resulted from poor parenting or emotional trauma. This article delves into the methods and attitudes surrounding the treatment of autism during this period, shedding light on the challenges faced by individuals and families affected by autism in the 1950s.

The Prevailing Beliefs and Attitudes towards Autism in the 1950s

In the 1950s, autism was largely misunderstood, and society held deep-rooted misconceptions about its causes and nature. The prevailing belief was that autism was a result of maternal coldness or emotional trauma experienced during infancy. This notion, known as the “refrigerator mother” theory, led to the blame falling squarely on mothers, causing immense guilt and blame. Consequently, the focus of treatment during this time revolved around fixing the perceived parental deficiencies rather than addressing the needs of the autistic individual.

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The Rise of Psychoanalysis as a Primary Treatment Approach

Psychoanalysis emerged as a dominant treatment approach for autism during the 1950s, largely influenced by the works of Austrian psychiatrist Bruno Bettelheim. Bettelheim popularized the theory that the root cause of autism lay in the parent-child relationship, particularly the mother’s emotional detachment or coldness. He argued that intensive psychoanalytic therapy, including mother-child interactions and family therapy, could correct the child’s perceived disturbances.

Despite its popularity, the psychoanalytic treatment approach faced significant criticism in subsequent years. Research debunked the notion that autism resulted from parent-child dynamics, and Bettelheim’s harsh and blaming approach drew widespread condemnation. However, the impact of the psychoanalytic era cannot be denied, as it set the stage for future discussions and advancements in understanding and treating autism.

Refracted Light Therapy: An Experimental Treatment

In the 1950s, another treatment approach emerged known as “refracted light therapy.” This experimental treatment involved exposing children with autism to different colored lights, with the belief that it could rebalance their brain activity and alleviate symptoms. The therapy was largely considered pseudoscientific, lacking empirical evidence and scientific backing. However, desperate parents often sought out such treatments in the absence of effective alternatives.

Refracted light therapy was administered in specialized institutes, where children would be subjected to light exposure for extended periods. Unfortunately, the therapy yielded little to no positive results, and its popularity waned as the years progressed. The experimental nature of such treatments underscored the desperation and limited understanding surrounding autism during this time.

The Emergence of Institution-Based Care

In the 1950s, institutionalization became the norm for individuals with severe autism or intellectual disabilities. Families often felt overwhelmed by the challenges of raising a child with autism and sought support from institutions that promised to provide specialized care. However, these institutions often fell short in providing adequate treatment and support, resulting in neglect and isolation of individuals with autism.

The prevailing societal attitude towards autism in the 1950s largely contributed to institutionalization. Autism was seen as a burden on families, and the lack of understanding and resources made it difficult for families to provide the necessary care. The institutional model of care persisted for several decades, until a shift towards community-based support and inclusion took place in later years.

The Evolution of Autism Treatment: Progress and Challenges

Advancements in Understanding and Treating Autism: From Isolation to Inclusion

Contemporary Approaches to Autism Treatment: A Multidisciplinary Approach

Frequently Asked Questions

Autism treatment in the 1950s was vastly different from modern approaches. Here are answers to common questions about how autism was addressed during that time.

1. How were individuals with autism treated in the 1950s?

In the 1950s, individuals with autism were often subjected to harsh and sometimes harmful treatments. One common approach was institutionalization, where they were placed in large hospitals or asylums. This separation from society was seen as a way to manage their behavior and provide care, but it often resulted in neglect and lack of understanding.

Other treatments included electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), which involved passing electric currents through the brain to induce seizures. This was thought to “normalize” behavior, but it had limited effectiveness and significant side effects. Additionally, some individuals with autism were subjected to sedatives and tranquilizers to control their behavior, further limiting their autonomy and individuality.

2. Were there any positive advancements in autism treatment during the 1950s?

While the 1950s saw many detrimental approaches to autism treatment, there were a few positive advancements during that time. One notable development was the recognition of speech therapy as a tool to help individuals with autism communicate. This approach aimed to improve language skills and social interaction, providing a way for them to express themselves more effectively.

Another positive advancement was the emergence of structured educational programs. Some schools began implementing specialized teaching techniques for children with autism, focusing on creating structured environments and individualized learning plans. These efforts were crucial in laying the foundation for modern educational approaches to autism.

3. What role did psychoanalysis play in autism treatment in the 1950s?

Psychoanalysis had a significant but controversial role in autism treatment during the 1950s. It was a prevalent belief at the time that autism was caused by “refrigerator mothers” or cold, distant parenting. Psychoanalytic theories focused on exploring the family dynamics and upbringing of individuals with autism to understand the underlying causes.

Unfortunately, this perspective placed blame on parents and led to feelings of guilt and stigmatization. Treatment often involved removing the child from the family environment, reinforcing the idea that the parents were the cause rather than seeking supportive interventions or therapies.

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4. Were there any alternative or holistic approaches to autism treatment in the 1950s?

In the 1950s, alternative and holistic approaches to autism treatment were not widely recognized or accepted. The prevailing belief was that autism was a result of inadequate parenting or psychological factors, leading to a focus on psychoanalytic or institutional treatments. Other approaches, such as dietary interventions or alternative therapies, were not considered mainstream and were often dismissed.

However, there were a few pioneering individuals who explored innovative approaches. For example, Bernard Rimland, a psychologist and parent of a child with autism, challenged prevailing beliefs and advocated for a more humane and supportive approach to treatment. Later, his research and advocacy would contribute to a shift in understanding and treatment of autism.

5. How has autism treatment evolved since the 1950s?

Since the 1950s, our understanding and treatment of autism have undergone significant changes. With advancements in research and awareness, we have moved away from blaming families and towards a more compassionate and inclusive approach. Current treatments focus on early intervention, individualized therapies, and support services that aim to improve the quality of life for individuals with autism.

Evidence-based interventions, such as Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and speech therapy, have become widely recognized and proven effective in helping individuals with autism develop social, communication, and behavioral skills. Additionally, educational settings now strive for inclusion, ensuring that individuals with autism have access to appropriate supports within mainstream classrooms.


Autism treatment in the 1950s was centered around behavior modification techniques and institutionalization. Doctors believed that discipline, structure, and strict routines were the best approach. Children with autism were often sent to institutions far from their families, which led to isolation and limited contact with the outside world. Controversial methods like electroconvulsive therapy and medication were also used, but with limited success.

Today, our understanding of autism has changed, and we know that early intervention, therapy, and support are crucial. Instead of isolating individuals with autism, we now focus on inclusion, acceptance, and providing specialized education and therapies. It is important to respect and embrace the differences of individuals with autism, and to create a supportive environment where they can thrive and reach their full potential.


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