Autistic Defenses

views updated


The term "defense" is not generally associated with autistic states. However, manifestations of the "body ego" (Freud) that have as their function the avoidance of anxiety are "autistic defenses." They give rise not only to "autistic phenomena" ("objects," "gestures," "languages," etc.) that are inseparable from the sensations that they cause, but also to a devitalization of the outside world.

Leo Kanner (1943) is credited with the discovery of early childhood autism. Without explicitly using the term "defense," he described a certain number of primary manifestations (sameness, self-sufficiency, self-absorption, and inaccessibility) that could be said to have a defensive function. In lieu of the term "autistic defense" (which implies a relatively organized ego), Margaret Mahler (1968) proposed the term "maintenance mechanism"; Frances Tustin, (1972, 1981) "autistic maneuvers"; and Fraiberg (1982) "defense reactions." The autistic "defenses" are thought to result from the self-induced sensuality of the autist and his or her exclusive focus on bodily sensations and rhythms (Tustin). Frances Tustin spoke of "autistic objects," "autistic contours," and "encapsulation." Donald Meltzer referred to "dismantling," and Freiberg to "avoidance" and to "freezing."

The analysis of autistic "defenses" leads to that of the psychic function of the body ego on the border between somatic and mental.

Elsa Schmid-Kitsikis


Fraiberg, Selma. (1982). Pathological defenses in infancy. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 51 (4), 612-635.

Kanner, Leo. (1973). Childhood psychosis, initial studies and new insights. Washington, DC: Winston.

Mahler, Margaret. (1968). On human symbiosis or the vicissitudes of individuation. New York: International Universities Press.

Meltzer, Donald. (1975). Adhesive identification. Contemporary Psycho-Analysis, 11, 289-310.

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

. (1981). Autistic states in children. London: Routledge.

Further Reading

Cohen D. , and Jay, S. M. (1996). Autistic barriers in the psychoanalysis of borderline adults. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 77, 913-934.

Gomberoff, M. and Gomberoff, L. (2000). Autistic devices in small children in mourning. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 81, 907-920.

Kilchenstein, M., and Schuerholz, L. (1995). Autistic defenses and the impairment of cognitive development. Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, 59, 443-459.

Mitrani, J. L. (1992). The survival function of autistic manoeuvres in adult patients. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 73, 549-560.