Books Author Alcatraz Al Capone Autism Teachers Home
Gina and Grey
For more about autism, visit the website of
the Autism Society of America
Q. What was it about Alcatraz that made you think about your sister?
A. Partly it was the lonely isolation of the island itself. Partly it was the bars on the cell house windows. When my sister was little, autism was a very unusual illness. No one knew much about it. And what little facts we had were largely erroneous. This was the era of Bruno Bettelheim and his Orthogenics School. It was Bettelheim who developed the refrigerator mother theory of autism. He believed that bad mothers, or more specifically, cold mothering, caused autism. Now his ideas have been completely discredited, but at the time they were thought to be cutting edge. In fact, my father sent an impassioned plea to Bruno Bettelheim wondering how Gina could apply for enrollment at the Orthogenics School. He wrote: “We have no opening for a girl at the moment nor do we foresee one in the future."
    My sister had a severe form of what would now be called “classic autism.” Not only was it unusual to be diagnosed with autism when my sister was little, but it was especially rare to be a girl with autism. Even now, the ratio of girls diagnosed with autism to boys diagnosed with autism is sometimes as high as 1 girl to 4 boys. If you include Asperger’s in this ratio, the boys to girls percentage can be as high as 15 boys to 1 girl. Because of this, what few schools there were for kids with autism were geared largely for boys. The journey my parents took to find a school for Gina was challenging to say the least.
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