Autistic Capsule/Nucleus

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The term "autistic capsule" (or "autistic nucleus") was proposed by Frances Tustin to describe a split part of the personality that has encapsulated archaic depressive anxieties such as the fear of collapse, liquefaction, falling, a black hole, or amputation of a body part, within a system of autistic-like defenses. Sensation objects and sensation forms, experienced as part of the subject's own body, serve to blot out bodily anxieties.

The notion of an autistic capsule appeared in Frances Tustin's first book, Autism and Childhood (1972), in the chapter entitled "Systems of Pathological Autism," where she refers to an "isolated pocket . . . of encapsulation" (p. 85). This construct enabled her to follow the development of a number of children who appeared normal but suffered from neurosis and later showed a variety of disorders: "phobias, sleeping difficulties, anorexia nervosa, elective mutism, some skin troubles, some psycho-somatic disorders, some learning difficulties, some speech disorders, and some forms of delinquency" (p. 85). She also argued that the autistic capsule exits "in the character structure of some relatively normal individuals," as revealed by rigid splits, superficial identifications, and an exaggerated need for control (p. 85). The superficial aspect of autistic encapsulation, also developed by Donald Meltzer (1975) and related to the notion of adhesive identity described by Esther Bick (1986), has comparable aspects in the "as if" personality described by Helene Deutsch (1942) and the "false self" personalities described by Donald Winnicott (1965). Tustin thought that ultimately such autistic capsules exist in minimal form in all individuals and that they are responsible for regressive tendencies toward inertia, similar to the regression toward an inanimate state associated with the death instinct in Freud's theory. The "de-encapsulation" process, Tustin emphasized, is likely to give rise to manic-depressive swings.

In Autistic Barriers in Neurotic Patients (1986) and The Protective Shell in Children and Adults (1990), Tustin described the autistic capsule in neurotic adult patients in greater detail, using her own case histories, notably that of an anorexic adolescent girl. Her description of motifs of vampirism and a system of communicating vases is congruent with the findings of the French investigators Evelyne Kestemberg, Jean Kestenberg, and Simone Decobert in La faim et le corps: une étude psychanalytique de l'anorexie mentale (Hunger and the body: a psychoanalytic study of anorexia nervosa; 1972). This book also contains contributions from other psychoanalysts, notably Sydney Klein and David Rosenfeld, who developed the theme of autistic phenomena in their own work. Sydney Klein (1980) emphasized how autistic phenomena in neurotic patients lead to thinness and superficiality. Rosenfeld (1993) studied how certain types of drug dependency and psychosomatic illnesses have some autistic aspects.

GeneviÈve Haag

See also: Autism; Autistic defenses; Breakdown; Black hole; Tustin, Frances.


Bick, Esther. (1986). Further considerations on the functioning of skin in early object relations: findings from infant observation integrated into child and adult analysis. British Journal of Psychotherapy, 2, 292-299.

Deutsch, Helene. (1942) Some forms of emotional disturbance and their relationship to schizophrenia. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 11, 301-321

Kestemberg, Evelyne; Kestenberg, Jean, and Decobert, Simone. (1972). La faim et le corps: une étude psychanalytique de l'anorexie mentale. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Klein, Sydney. (1980). Autistic phenomena in neurotic patients. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 61 (2), 395-401.

Meltzer, Donald, Bremner, John, Hoxter, Shirley, Weddell, Doreen, and Wittenberg, Isca. (1975). Explorations in autism. Perth, Scotland: Clunie Press.

Rosenfeld, David. (1993). Autisme: des aspects autistiques dans la pharmacodépendance et dans les maladies psychosomatiques. Journal de la psychanalyse de l'enfant, 20, 168-188.

Tustin, Frances. (1972). Autism and childhood psychosis. London: Hogarth.

. (1986). Autistic barriers in neurotic patients. London: Karnac Books.

. (1990). The protective shell in children and adults. London: Karnac Books.

Winnicott, Donald W. (1965). Ego distortion in terms of true and false self. In his Maturational processes and the facilitating environment (pp. 140-152). London: Hogarth and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis. (Original work published 1962)