OBITUARY: Frances Tustin
Saturday 17 December 1994
rances Tustin was one of the first professionally trained child psychotherapists in Britain, and in her 25 years of clinical practice she came to be internationally recognised for her work with autistic children.
She had a natural affinity for children and her understanding of autistic children was highly intuitive. Within child psychiatry, her published views, though widely acclaimed, remain controversial since she challenged the belief that autism was biological or genetic, believing it to have combined psychological and biological origins. Her style was imaginative and individual but she relied more on creating ``resonances'' in her readers than on hard scientific evidence.
In her first book, Autism and Childhood Psychosis (1972), she described autism as a pathological barrier, created by fixation at a pre-thinking stage of infant development. She believed it was an arrest rather than a regression, and that the blockage to psychological development was the result of a traumatic experience of bodily separateness from the mother.
She was born Frances Vickers in Darlington, an only child, in 1913. Her father was a country schoolmaster. She trained as a primary schoolteacher in London and began her career working, like her father, with five- to eleven-year old school children. In 1
948 she married Arnold Tustin, later Professor of Heavy Electrical Engineering at Imperial College, London, who died in January of this year.
Frances Tustin qualified at the Tavistock Clinic, in London, in 1953 after completing the course of training in child psychotherapy newly instituted there by John Bowlby. Her interest in autism began when she spent a year at the James Jackson Putnam Center in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1954. She worked there both as a therapist and as a general assistant in managing autistic children. She participated in the centre's respite schemes living in the homes of these enormously disturbed children and looking after them while their parents had a break.
On returning to Britain the next year she established a close working relationship with Mildred Creak, a child psychiatrist of some eminence at Great Ormond Street Hospital, in London, and in time she also developed a private practice in which she specialised in treating the most disturbed children. From 1971 to 1973 she was principal child psychotherapist at the Tavistock Child Guidance Centre.
Frances Tustin continued to develop her ideas in two further books, Autistic States in Children (1981) and Autistic Barriers in Neurotic Patients (1986), in which she applied her ideas to some neurotic states in adults.
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