Nikolaas  Tinbergen (1978) - New Hope for Autistic Children and Their Parents

Nikolaas Tinbergen (1978)

New Hope for Autistic Children and Their Parents

Nikolaas Tinbergen (1978)

New Hope for Autistic Children and Their Parents

Comment

The Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for 1973 must have come as a real surprise to the three ethologists who received it and also to most other watchers of the Nobel Prize. That studying insects, fishes and birds could be classified as Physiology or Medicine made Tinbergen start his Nobel Lecture in Stockholm by reflecting that since he and Konrad Lorenz were certainly not physiologists, their work had to fall within the realm of Medicine. For this reason, Tinbergen said, he talked only about what ethology (“watching and wondering”) could do for what he called “Stress Diseases”. One of these was what has been called “Early Childhood Autism”. He and his wife Elisabeth had taken an interest in this topic a couple of years earlier and had already published on the subject together. When Tinbergen came to Lindau five years later, his lecture described how far they had come in using the methodology developed for studying “animal behaviour” in studying the behaviour of human beings, in particular children. The Lindau lecture was partly built on earlier lectures and publications. The two slides mentioned in the lecture, e.g., showed figures 1 and 2 of the published version of the Nobel Lecture. In their study, Tinbergen and his wife concluded that autism cannot be explained genetically or as brain damages. Instead they put forward a more psychoanalytical hypothesis, that autism is a form of hyperanxiety deriving from environmental influences such as, e.g., chaotic households, broken marriages, etc. In particular they point at the need for the mother to establish a good contact with the child and Tinbergen ends his lecture by giving a message to prospective parents in the audience: Take good care of your children both before they are born, when they are born and after they have been born. Even though the hypothesis of the Tinbergens has been questioned, the final message of the lecture seems anyway to be a good one!

Anders Bárány

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