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Tustin, F. (1984). Autistic Shapes. Int. R. Psycho-Anal., 11:279-290.

(1984). International Review of Psycho-Analysis, 11:279-290

Autistic Shapes

Frances Tustin

SUMMARY

Autistic children alerted me to the significance of what they called their 'shapes'. These 'shapes' were not the actual shapes of actual objects, although these objects could be manipulated to produce the entirely personal, reassuring and controllable shapes the child wanted; the circle being an especially comforting one. Soft malleable bodily substances, and their equivalents, induced the vague formations of sensation which the children referred to as 'shapes'. The outlines of such 'shapes' were fluid and could be changed at will, in contradistinction to those of autistic 'objects' which, being object-like clusters of sensation, arising from the manipulation of hard bodily substances and their equivalents, had outlines which were fixed and definite. Autistic 'objects' were actively grasped to help the child to feel secure; the more passive experiences of soft, amorphous autistic 'shapes' were soothing and comforting.

In normal development the inbuilt shape-making propensities bring some degree of order to the randomness of the flux of sensation which constitutes the infant's early sense of being. In autistic children, these shape-making propensities have become idiosyncratic and perseverative due to undigested terrors of the 'not-me'. The author's experience has been that psychoanalytic therapy with young autistic children which is informed by insights into autistic 'shapes' and autistic 'objects' is mutative. The 'flat-spin' of autism gives way to ongoing psychological development as these handicaps to co-operation with other people are modified, and terrors are thus relieved.

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