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Experiencing Self and Others: Contributions From Studies of Autism to The Psychoanalytic Theory of Social Development

Experiencing Self and Others: Contributions From Studies of Autism to The Psychoanalytic Theory of Social Development


Psychoanalysts have long been interested in autism as a disorder in which the development of a sense of self and other is altered dramatically. This paper outlines how our psychoanalytic understanding of the process of emergence and maintenance of the self and of inner world may be informed by recent findings from developmental psychology about how normal and autistic children develop the capacity to attribute mental stales such as desires, feelings, and beliefs to others. Because autistic individuals frequently fail to develop an understanding of the relation between feelings or beliefs and the behaviors of themselves or others, studies of autism provide a clinical model for how these neurocognitively based functions, related to acquiring a so-called theory of mind, are involved in the elaboration of an inner world and in the ongoing definition of self. Understanding how both autistic and normal children develop, or fail to develop, the capacity to attribute meaning to others' actions, beliefs, and feelings speaks to psychoanalytic notions of internalization, identification, and introjection and provides a neurocognitive frame for now representations of self and others are created in the inner world. Conversely, the psychoanalytic view that the infant's emerging sense of self is also shaped by the infant's desire for mother underscores that affective precursors are absolutely necessary for a theory of mind to emerge.
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