Learned or Jeopardized Sociability: Mothers’ Practices with ‹autistic› Children (France, 1960s–1970s)

«A child who can durably maintain eye contact with others cannot be autistic», reported a psychoanalytically oriented psychiatrist on an early application of behavioural therapy in 1970s. For him, gaze avoidance was an «unquantifiable symptom» and a spontaneous reaction of the child to its individual history, often one of bad parenting. Conversely, for mothers keen on behavioural methods in a broad sense, sociability could be learned, and educational activities carried out at home usually relied on a knowledge of children’s bodily reactions. Autobiographies indicate that those visual behaviours were not interpreted as a lack of the child’s desire to interact, but as his/her ‹inability› to understand everyday happenings and act accordingly.

In the 1960s and 70s, ‘autism’ was often identified as a ‹child psychosis› in France, and mothers frequently struggled to find educational institutions welcoming their children. In a political landscape supportive of public-private partnerships, many parents, at times helped by a handful of neuro-psychiatrists, set up their own centres as an alternative to psychiatric hospitals. However, enthusiasm for neurodevelopmental and behavioural approaches to childcare put parents at the centre of professional tensions arising at the crossroads of psychiatry, special education and social work.

Through mothers’ autobiographies and the newsletters of associations that reunited parents and researchers, this paper explores how parents negotiated coexisting, qualitatively different and at times conflicting professionals’ views on child-environment interplay. Investigating the unfolding of this interplay at the intersection of domestic practices and institutional contexts, it shows how specific representations of the ‹nature› of the child and the ‹milieus› deemed suitable for his/her development impacted parents’ sociability.