8 Weird and Awful Ways People with Autism Have Been ‘Treated’ Throughout History

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Autism has been misunderstood for years, and with this misunderstanding has come some bizarre and even cruel treatments. As more knowledge and comprehension of the condition has developed, so have treatments — for the most part. Some of the more unusual approaches that were used to treat autism still persist today, which is both surprising and unsettling, and indicative that more knowledge of autism is needed. Here’s a look at some of the autism “treatment” methods that have been used throughout history.

8. Biochemical Treatments

Beginning in the 1920s, roughly a decade after Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler first uses the term “autism,” biochemical treatments were introduced that targeted the diet of a child with autism. Doctors theorized that certain elements of a child’s diet, such as gluten, worsened the symptoms of autism. Therefore, gluten and casein were removed from their diets in an attempt to relieve symptoms. Studies are still being conducted today, with one 2006 study suggesting the subjects saw improvements, though much of the evidence that has been presented has been anecdotal.

7. Aversive Punishment

Beginning in the 1970s, electric shock therapy was used to treat autism as a way of “aversive punishment.” Scientists believed that punishing children with an electric shock when they engaged in an unwanted autistic behavior would cure them, with one article reporting “many positive outcomes.” Backers claimed this type of treatment led to improved social behavior. These treatments are still used in some cases today.

6. Parentectomy

One of the most bizarre treatments, and possibly most mentally and emotionally harmful, was parentectomy. This 1950s treatment was based on the “refrigerator mother theory,” which proposed that autism was caused by cold, uncaring mothers. Psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim subscribed to this theory, which led to parentectomy treatments, or the removal of the child from their parents for long periods of time. Bettelheim was later found to be a fraud who lied about his credentials and whose findings have been discredited. Although the theory has become widely rejected, there are still some psychoanalytic therapists who continue to support these ideals.

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5. LSD

Another peculiar treatment that was instituted in the 1960s was the use of LSD, a serotonin inhibitor, to alleviate symptoms of autism. Children were given doses of the perception-altering hallucinogenic drug with the belief that altering their state of perception would lead to reduced symptoms, and maybe even a cure. One study reported that after being given the drug, subjects became happier and were in an improved mood. The treatment was very controversial, received much criticism, and was discontinued.

Click ‘next’ to continue reading about the different ways people with autism have been “treated” throughout history.

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