The Wild Boy of Aveyron, Jean Marc Gaspard Itard, 1807 (as cited in Wolf Children and Feral Man, J. A. Singh & Robert Zingg, 1949, Chapter 4, pp. 241-255 and The Wild Boy of Burundi, Harlan Lane & Richard Pillar, 1978, Chapter 3, pp. 50-63.)
Summary: These works cite Jean-Marc Itard’s descriptions of Victor, the Wild Boy of Aveyron. Victor, a 12-13 year old boy found in the woods and brought to Sicard’s National Institute of Deaf-Mutes in 1800, is described by Itard as being a pure “egoist”. He had no speech, hated children of his age, liked to be alone, spent hours rocking from side to side while murmuring continuously and was indifferent to others. In addition, these works cite the contrasting philosophical approaches and conclusions of Itard and his contemporary, Philippe Pinel, in regards to Victor. Pinel, a psychiatrist. believed that Victor was a congenital idiot and therefore had no hope of being helped by instruction. He was strongly influenced by his belief that a man’s nature (ie. genetic and biological makeup) determined his fate in life. Itard, on the other hand, believed that man is what we make of him; that man’s fate is determined by his environment and experiences. Victor was seen as an experimental case that could provide the answer to the question of the imminence of nature or nurture in man’s development. Despite 5 years of creative tutelage by Itard, Victor failed to achieve normalcy. However, Victor did make progress and learned many things. Itard concluded from this that there is a critical period of language and cognitive development that had passed for Victor by the time Itard started working with him and that a long period of isolation may have irreversible effects.
Personal Reflection: It is interesting to note that the behavioral characteristics of Victor, cited by Itard, closely parallel the behavioral characteristics required for a modern day diagnosis of autism. If in fact Victor was “autistic”, as many contemporary autism researchers believe (Bruon Bettelheim, Catherine Lord) then Itard was the first to demonstrate that individuals with autism could be educated. This fact was rediscovered and demonstrated by empirical data in the late 1960s and 1970s by Ivar Lovaas at UCLA. Prior to Lovaas’ research, treatment of individuals with autism focused on the psychoanalysis of the parent child relationship. Bruno Bettelheim (19 ), citing Itard’s observations and work with Victor as support, stated that the genesis of autism in a child was the result of unconscious maternal hostility and rejection of the child in infancy. Later research proved this theory false. It is also interesting to note that the same philosophical debate over the imminence of nature or nurture in a child’s development continues to rage consciously and subconsciously in the minds of educators today. Although most people today would agree that a combination of the two determines the development of the individual, many educators lean one way or the other in their educational philosophy. Throughout the history of education, it is this writer’s opinion that major breakthroughs in the education of individuals with developmental disabilities have been discovered by individuals who, like Itard, lean in the direction of nurture.
Possible Early Precursors of Autism:
Insanity of Early Childhood
Pathology of Mind, Henry Maudsley, M.D. (1882), Chapter 6, pp. 277 - 280.
Summary: In this chapter, Maudsley describes characteristics of different types of insanity of early life. In one particular class of early insanity , “affective derangement”, Maudsley describes infants that whine and wail at all times. Nothing appears to calm them. As they grow older, they display specific eccentricities such as obsessive compulsive behaviors, social isolation and the instinct to gratify only themselves. In one case, a 12 year old boy was described