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Mahler, M.S. (1958). Autism and Symbiosis, Two Extreme Disturbances of Identity. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 39:77-82.

(1958). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 39:77-82

Autism and Symbiosis, Two Extreme Disturbances of Identity

Margaret Schoenberger Mahler, M.D.


Research in child schizophrenia points to

i. an inborn or very early acquired basic defect of the ego,

a. one of the manifestations of which in autistic children is the inability of perceptual discrimination of animate and inanimate, and of the mother as a living being in particular,

b. whereas in the symbiotic psychotic child the most important manifestation of this basic defect is the insufficiency of the stimulus barrier (which prevents the mother's acting as efficient buffer against over-stimulation from without).

ii. In consequence of these defects, the mother is either not perceived at all (as in autism) or remains undifferentiated from the self (symbiotic syndrome). Hence, all relations to the object world, to the child's own body as well as the concepts of the self are altered.

iii. Apart from the basic defect, additional problems are created by virtue of the fact that maturation proceeds while development lags.

iv. One of the most momentous maturational thrusts occurs in the phallic phase. The concentration of psychic energy in the sexual organs (and in the child's own body) leads to further depletion of the already precarious object cathexis. This phase resembles in many respects the picture of pre- or pseudo-psychosis in puberty (in which grave subjectively registered disturbance of the sense of identity is so conspicuous), of which it seems to be the forerunner.

v. In order to survive the child has to develop several restitutive devices which I have tried to illustrate in one such case.

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