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Mitrani, J.L. (2009). The Problem of Empathy: Bridging the Gap between Neuroscience and Psychoanalysis toward Understanding Autism. Fort Da, 15(2):7-32.

(2009). Fort Da, 15(2):7-32

The Problem of Empathy: Bridging the Gap between Neuroscience and Psychoanalysis toward Understanding Autism

Judith L. Mitrani, Ph.D.

Perhaps, one day in the future, a bridge between clinical psychoanalytic observations and neuro-scientific findings regarding autistic states will be discovered. I would like to believe that I might contribute to building that bridge in some small way.

Frances Tustin (personal communication, 1994)


For those readers familiar with my work, this paper will come as something of a surprise, if not a disappointment. Generally, I've concentrated my efforts upon the extension and elaboration of Klein's, Bion's, and Tustin's ideas, with an emphasis on clinical technique in adult analysis. However, in this paper, I'd like to bring the reader along on what has been a rather personal journey: not on the usual highways I take when headed to a pre-determined destination, but rather along the side roads.


By the end of her life in 1994, Frances Tustin had made a vital contribution to the psychoanalytic understanding of the development of autistic states in children and adults, and she had formulated guidelines for psychoanalytic treatment based upon that understanding. A tireless advocate for these children and their parents, her thoughts expressly reached toward a time when discoveries in neuroscience might cross paths with her own, leading to more effective handling of this tragic disorder, one that reportedly affects one out of 150 children and their families.

This paper is both inspired by Tustin's dedication and indebted to her ideas. What you read here may take patience to navigate and covers territory in which I'm largely a stranger. What I've done may be akin to what one does when faced with a bag of puzzle pieces without the box and, as such, with no colored picture to go by during assembly.

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