Wolf Girls and Mechanical Boys: Whiteness and Assimilation in Bruno Bettelheim’s Narratives of Autism


  • Elizabeth Cady Maher University of Illinois Chicago




autism, orientalism, Jewish assimilation, psychology, whiteness


In March of 1959, public intellectual, principal of the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School at the University of Chicago, and Jewish concentration camp survivor, Bruno Bettelheim published two articles that presented seemingly disparate narratives of autism. One of these narratives, that of the mechanical boy, has become ubiquitous in discussions of autism history. The other article centered on Bettelheim’s posthumous diagnosis of Kamala, who had been known as the Wolf Girl of Midnapore India due to claims that she was raised by wolves, as autistic. Bettelheim compared Kamala to other “wild” autistic children he had worked with, especially Anna, a Polish Jewish refugee who had spent her earliest years hiding in a dugout from Nazi persecution. This article argues that in order to understand Bettelheim’s portrayal of autism, it is necessary to read the narrative of the mechanical boy alongside Bettelheim’s other narratives of autism. Specifically, it is necessary to read it alongside Bettelheim’s narratives of the autistic child as “wild child/wolf girl,” as well as his comparison between autistic children and some of his fellow concentration camp inmates, who he referred to as “moslems.” While seemingly disparate, these narratives are actually deeply intertwined. These narratives of incurable “wild children” and “moslem” concentration camp inmates served as the necessary contrast to the rehabilitation/assimilation/cure narrative of the mechanical boy. Reading these narratives of autism alongside each other helps uncover the often-elided role of race in shaping professional and public understandings of autism. This article problematizes contemporary and historical formations of autism as a white, middle-class, male “disorder” by making explicit the role of race in the construction of early narratives of autism. This article will also argue that in the late 1950s and the 1960s Bruno Bettelheim used narratives of autism to promote a new model of white technocratic masculinity in the United States. The creation of this new model of white masculinity was bound up with the whitening of Ashkenazi Jewish identity. Bettelheim presented whiteness as something that Ashkenazi Jews in America could achieve through a process of rehabilitation/assimilation/cure that rid them of pathological “Jewish” traits.




How to Cite

Maher, E. C. (2023). Wolf Girls and Mechanical Boys: Whiteness and Assimilation in Bruno Bettelheim’s Narratives of Autism. Disability Studies Quarterly, 43(1). https://doi.org/10.18061/dsq.v43i1.9648



Section II: Revisitations, Revisions