Margaret Mahler

Margaret Mahler
Autism and Symbiotic Psychosis
Margaret Mahler (1897-1985)
Born in 1897
Raised in Hungary
Mother favored her younger sister
Considered this the first mother-infant pair
she observed
• Child psychoanalytic psychologist
• Developmental psychologist
• Educated in Hungary and Germany
• Specialized in Pediatrics
• Recognized for her work with psychotic
• Therapeutic Nursery at the Master’s
Children’s Center in New York
• Worked with Anna Freud
• Separation-Individuation
• Phases
Our Study
Infantile Autism
• Hypothesis is Freudian: quasi-sociobiological
- Survival Instinct
- Need for dependence on another’s care
• There are factors of nature
- way that child receives and responds to
internal and external stimuli
• There are factors of nurture
- symbiotic partner serves as buffer to the
internal and external stimuli for the child
• Combination: The symbiotic partner serving as
an organizer and buffer for stimuli assists the
child in forming boundaries and developing
sensory perceptions.
Infantile Autism
Child is unable to perceive Gestalt of mother
and her vital functioning on child’s behalf
No distinctions between inner and outer world
No distinctions between self and inanimate
Turning away from outside world can be
1. Inborn
2. Acquired Defense
Unaware of primary caregiver as having a
relation to self, just part of environment
Symbiotic Psychosis
• Second undifferentiated stage
• Delusional omnipotent symbiotic fusion
with need-satisfying object or person
• Sees primary caregiver as an inseparable
part of self
• Partial or complete loss of identity
• Alienation and withdrawal from reality
• Activities
– Play dough
– Blocks
– Puzzle
– Book
• First time, activities were performed with
• Second time, activities were performed
with sister
Mary and Claire
• Activities
– Game: Monkey Jumble
– Book
– Game: Zingo
– Clean up
• Activities were performed with mother
• An Activity was performed with Elizabeth
Mother-Infant Bond—the relationship between a mother and her child; according to Mahler, it should
naturally be strong at first and as the child matures, the child should become more independent
Independence—child can accomplish tasks without his or her mother acting as the guide through every step
(though independence is attained through the support of the mother during the formative stages of early
Symbiotic Psychosis—Mahler’s term for a disorder in which a child forms a relationship with its mother or
caretaker such that the child is afraid to separate from the caretaker and become independent
Normal Autistic Phase—occurs from the moment of birth up until the end of the first month; the child seems
oblivious to the outside world because of a natural protection by an internal stimulus barrier, broken by
moments when the newborn is quietly alert of his or her surroundings; outer sensations as a whole are
unimportant to the child
Normal Symbiotic Phase---occurs within the first 5 months of the child’s life; the mother and child are
essentially one
Separation/Individuation—an elongated phase that ranges from 5 months to 30 months of age and refers to
the child’s gradual development as an independent individual
Practicing—phase between 9 to 12 months and begins with the child’s ability to crawl; beginning of a time of
exploration; the mother’s attitude is extremely important at this time
Rapprochement—phase that occurs between 15 to 24 months when the child begins to notice the mother in a
different way because the child becomes torn between the desire for autonomy and wanting and needing the
mother; according to Mahler, this is a time of indecision that serves as a bridge toward the child’s
independence. This phase is resolved with the acquisition of language.

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