Feb 042012

As far as I know, psychology training doesn’t include any of the hard sciences, like chemistry, physics, biochemistry, or even their extensions such as physiology and anatomy.

Am I right in believing that?  I think I am, but I’m open to correction.  Certainly, when I was a lad, psychology was one of those courses they slipped in under Arts, which meant that you didn’t have to work quite as hard as the guys doing medicine or engineering, and you could go out to get pissed and laid more often, but you had to put in a bit more effort than someone who was doing English.  That guy turned up for three lectures a week and spent the rest of his time stoned, while you had to attend maybe two hours every single day, but at least you got your psychology degree.

Now, I’m not for a second suggesting that Doctor Tony Humphreys ever got drunk or laid.  Far from it.  As a former cleric, I’m sure he stuck closely to his vows, and there’s no doubt that he was a hard worker, as evidenced by all the self-help books he’s written, although I’ve had difficulty tracking down any peer-reviewed scientific papers authored by him.  If they’re on his website, I haven’t been able to find them.

Unfortunately, Tony seems to have fallen victim to his own self-belief, which is hardly surprising when you happen to be the default guru called on by RTE whenever they need an expert on the human mind, and he has started to pronounce on things he has no qualifications in, which is remarkable for a man who feels competent to comment on all manner of human foibles.   Maybe it would be no harm if Tony took his own hubris and used it as a case study.  He could write a book about it:  The Pundit Delusion.

I’m not a psychologist, so I’m sure Tony would forgive me for using the term God Complex loosely.  I have no precise idea what it means, but Tony strikes me as the sort of fella you might meet in a pub, who once learned a bit about something and never lets you forget it.

Here he is again, in the Irish Examiner, talking about autism.  Now bear in mind that this is a man with no obvious training in medicine, physiology, chemistry, biochemistry or any other fundamental science.  Needless to mention, if Tony contacts me and lets me know his qualifications in these areas, I’ll be delighted to correct the error, but he doesn’t claim such knowledge.  However, even if he does possess such qualifications, his article in the  Examiner is evidence that he wasn’t paying much attention in class.

Tony has a PhD in something or other, which is quite a hard thing to achieve.  It involves a lot of drudgery, but once obtained, it can have a very damaging effect on the psyche, creating delusions of omniscience.  And while I’m no psychologist, I fear  this is what has happened to Tony Humphreys as he pontificates about the causes of autism.  The sorry bit is that someone who was given a PhD by an Irish institution seems so detached from the basic principles of clear thinking, and even sorrier is the fact that this man has written many self-help books relied on by vulnerable people to try and fix their lives.

I don’t know if there’s any connection, but it’s interesting that Tony claims theology as one of his areas of expertise.  Theology is fundamentally concerned with belief as opposed to evidence, and I must say that I’d be alarmed if I found myself confronted by a consulting clinical psychologist and discovered that his practice was informed by an adherence to unproven beliefs, which is what theology is.

Speaking solely for myself, if I discovered such a thing, I’d run a mile.  I’d run ten miles, until  I found a therapist motivated purely by scientific detachment.  Why do I mention this?  Because the denunciation of parents in the article of Tony Humphreys has a smell of clericalism about it.  This article sounds a lot like the sort of judgemental nonsense we heard from priests and bishops over many years.  Maybe they haven’t gone away.

I’m going to quote the article in its entirety and  interject comments as we go along, to highlight what I find silly or objectionable.

A team of researchers at Cambridge University is currently exploring the connection between high-achieving parents, such as engineers, scientists and computer programmers and the development of their children. Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, who is the director of the Autism Research Centre at the university, says there are indications that adults who have careers in areas of science and math are more likely to have autistic children.

In studies in 1997 and 2001 it was found that the children and grandchildren of engineers were more likely to be autistic and that mathematicians had higher rates of autism than other professions. What is shocking is that Dr Baron-Cohen and the team of researchers are one: assuming that autism is a scientific fact and, two: missing the glaringly obvious fact that if the adults they researched live predominanently in their heads and possess few or no heart qualities, their children will need to find some way of defending themselves against the absence of expressed love and affection and emotional receptivity.

After all, the deepest need of every child is to be unconditionally loved and the absence of it results in children shutting down emotionally themselves because to continue to spontaneously reach out for love would be far too painful.

Comment.  Humphreys creates two logical fallacies here.  First, autism is an established scientific fact, investigated by people with real scientific skills as opposed to the anecdotal experience of a self-help author.  Second,  it is not glaringly obvious that people who have careers in maths or science live predominantly in their heads.  It is not glaringly obvious that they possess few or no heart qualities.  

Where does this man get such crazy ideas?  Was his mother frightened by a mathematician while he was in the womb?  This is a construct of his personal prejudices and a gross slur.

Another possibility doesn’t seem to have occurred to him.  Mathematically-based disciplines appeal to people on the autistic spectrum.  A significant minority of mathematicians and engineers have Asperger’s, and it’s no surprise that these parents might have children with autism.  It doesn’t take a genius to work this out, but Tony Humphreys struggles with it, or perhaps he understands it perfectly well and, because it hints at a genetic component, he finds it too inconvenient to mention.  Nobody will buy a self-help book about genetic disorders.

Children’s wellbeing mostly depends on emotional security – a daily diet of nurture, love, affection, patience, warmth, tenderness, kindness and calm responses to their expressed welfare and emergency feelings. To say that these children have a genetic and/or neurobiological disorder called autism or ASD (autistic spectrum disorder) only adds further to their misery and condemns them to a relationship history where their every thought and action is interpreted as arising from their autism.

Comment : Humphreys presumes that autistic children have not received a daily diet of nurture, love, affection, patience, warmth, tenderness and kindness.  An insult to their parents.  Since he is not an expert in genetics, neurology or biology, he has no business making definitive statements about these things.  It reflects poorly on him.  No professional should make make such dogmatic statements about a field he is not qualified in, but perhaps that’s where the clue lies.  Could he be influenced by dogmatic thinking?

It is frequently the case that it is when these children go to school that their emotional and social withdrawal of eccentricities are noticed, mainly by teachers, who themselves can struggle with how best to respond to these children. An unconscious collusion can emerge between parents and teachers to have these children psychiatrically assessed so that the spotlight is put on the children and not their adult carers’ own emotional and social struggles. Regretfully, the relationship contexts of the childrens’ lives are not examined and their mature development is often sacrificed on the fires of the unresolved emotiuonal defences of those adults who are responsible for their care.

Comment: This is no more than speculation and Humphreys supplies no evidence to support it.  It’s pop psychology at its most crass.

It is important to hold to the fact that these carers do not consciously block their children’s wellbeing, but the unconscious hope of children is that other adults (teachers, relatives, educational psychologists, care workers) that when they are emotionally and socially troubled, it is their adult carers who often need more help than they do.

Comment: This is an extension of the same unsupported prejudices, and Humphreys supplies no evidence to support his conjecture.

Indeed, my experience in my own psychological practice is that when parents and teachers resolve their own fears and insecurities, children begin to express what they dare not express before their guardians resolved their own emotional turmoil.

Comment: This is  anecdotal, and irrelevant to autism.  Humphreys produces no figures or research to support his assertion.  He relies on his status as a TV guru.  Somebody needs to explain to him that when writing an article that he knows will cause great pain (unless he lacks sufficient awareness to realise it), he needs to support his assertions with facts, not opinions.  Unless, of course, he has come to believe his own infallibility.

A clear distinction needs to be made between the autism described by psychiatrist Leo Kanner in 1943 and the much more recently described ASD (autistic spectrum disorder, often referred to as Asperger’s syndrome). The former ‘condition’ was an attempt to understand severely emotionally withdrawn children, the latter concept, which is being used in an alarmingly and rapidly increasing way, is an attempt to explain children’s more moderate emotional and social difficulties. Curiously – and not at all explained by those health and educational professionals who believe that autism and ASD are genetic and/or neurobiological disorders – is the gender bias of being more diagnosed in boys (a ratio of four to one). This bias is also found with ADHD. Surely that gender phenomenon indicates the probability that boys are reared differently to girls and that due to social and cultural factors boys respond to the troubling behaviours of their adult carers in ways that are radically different to girls.

Comment : Humphreys is plain wrong on this.  Autism is autism.  He’s not qualified to pronounce on such things.  He has no training in medicine and yet he feels entitled to dismiss the work of people far more qualified than he is.  This is arrogance on a monumental scale.

What is equally distressing is that, as for ADHD, a whole industry involving research, assessment, screening, education and treatment has been developed, despite the absence of any scientific basis or test for either the originally ‘detected’ autism or for the broader construct of ASD.

Sami Timimi, a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist and two colleagues rigorously examined over 5000 research articles on autism and ASD and found no scientific basis for what they now refer to as mythical disorders. They outline their findings in their book ‘The Myth of Autism’ (2011). The conclusion of their in-depth studies is that “there is no such thing as autism and the label should be abolished”.

The authors are not saying that the children are not emotionally and socially troubled. What they are saying is – and I concur with them – that focus needs to be on the relationship contexts of these children’s livews, and to take each child for the individual he or she is and to examine closely the family and community narratives and discover creative possibilities for change and for more dynamic and hopeful stories to emerge for both the children and their carers.

Comment: When people use words like concur, your antennae need to be twitching.  It turns out that the authors of the book did not say autism was caused by poor parenting.  Clearly, Humphreys missed the vital paragraphs where in fact they said the exact opposite.  This is not encouraging.  If he can make such a vital error in his rush to print, what else is he missing?  Does he make a habit of overlooking facts that don’t fit his prejudices?  For that matter, did he read the book at all?

Isn’t Tony about to launch another self-help book?  I think so, and what better launching pad than a bit of controversy about autism?  Given RTE’s tendency to call in the nearest cosy talking head, you could only assume that he might get yet another slot on Pat Kenny or Tubs, with all the attendant benefits to his book, of course.

You see, this is the problem.  We live in a world where some guy gets himself a degree in something or other, and then he sets up a website where he promotes himself as a best-selling author.  A National and International Speaker, even, whatever that might be.  His website claims that Tony is Ireland’s most influential psychologist, which of course doesn’t stand up to the slightest scrutiny because it’s not measurable.  What does influential mean?  Who is he comparing himself to?  This is the sort of nonsense that sets my alarm bells ringing.

According to Tony’s website, he is regularly sought for his expertise and views on radio and television shows and writes a weekly column for one of Ireland’s primary newspapers, the Irish Examiner.  Interesting.  Which part of that statement validates his scientific credentials?  RTE want him on the telly?  He writes for the Examiner?

When did these organs acquire the status of scientific journals?

Nonsense.  Here’s the test we must all satisfy:

If you’re a scientist, present your research.  Publish your research papers.  List the peer-reviewed publications you’ve produced.

If you’re not a scientist, don’t presume to talk about things you don’t understand.

It’s that simple.

I have no real objection to self-help guys like Tony Humphreys.  You write a book full of woolly, unverifiable advice, people pay for it and you make money.  Nice.  I might try it myself some time.  But when he starts inflicting a sort of quasi-clerical guilt on the parents of autistic children, then he needs to be confronted.  I don’t know if Tony has children.  I don’t know how long he spent in a seminary.  But along the line, he seems to have lost touch with the simple skills of making contact.

What kind of self-help guru blames the people who are doing their best to look after the children?

Not a very impressive one, in my opinion.  If there’s any coldness evident here, I think it’s to be found in Tony Humphreys’s dismissal of the caring parents who devote their lives to their autistic children.




In a letter to the Examiner, Kevin Mitchell, Associate professor of genetics and neuroscience in
Trinity College Dublin says,

The article by Tony Humphreys claiming that autism is caused by “cold” or emotionally distant parents, displays such willful ignorance, lack of understanding and density of inaccurate and offensive statements that it is shocking that the Irish Examiner would publish it.

This kind of psycho-babble has been discredited for decades.




14th February.  Health Minister, Dr James Reilly, says It was utterly outrageous. The hurt that he caused people is absolutely astonishing.  Reilly’s 27-year-old autistic son recently graduated with an honours degree in genetics.



Legal background


Medical Practitioners Act 2007

Health & Social Care Professionals Act 2005




The Family Voyage

Living With Autism

Communicate Science

How To Argue Illogically: Tony’s Top Ten Tips




  168 Responses to “Autism Spectrum — Tony Humphreys, Clinical Psychologist, Blames the Parents”

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