Refrigerator mother is a discredited theory which came into currency during 1940s. The term was used to describe mothers of Autistic children. The theory blamed autism on the attitude of mother or parents—this has been described as a momentous medical misdiagnosis which continued for at least two decades during the 1950s and 1960s.
"Bruno Bettleheim was one of the first child development specialists to focus on autism...(according to him) autism was a psychological disturbance arising from detached and “frigid” mothering...The shock is not so much that Bettleheim could be so wrong as that it took decades before anyone in the medical community listened to the few lone voices, such as Bernard Rimland, Eric Schopler and the mothers themselves, who had been challenging the unfounded theory of mother-blame since the early 1960s."
One could argue that Reactive Attachment Disorder, a disorder that might be mistaken for autism, can be caused by "refrigerator mothers" (specifically, a child's needs for comfort, affection, and love not being met). However, Reactive Attachment is not related to autism, and can be cured by giving the child more positive experiences. Autism cannot be cured but can be helped, and parents/caregivers should not blame themselves.
The refrigerator mother idea first came from Leo Kanner, who in 1943 noted that many parents were unkind to their autistic children. In 1949 he suggested that "parental coldness" might cause autism.
The theory was formally propounded by psychologist Bruno Bettelheim and a number of other health care professionals. Their premise was that the autism has its genesis in the cold and uncaring behavior and attitude of mothers towards their children. This resulted into improper bondage and relationship between the child and the mother which resulted into autism and related disabilities.
Upon his death in 1990, people discovered that Bettelheim had lied about many things (including his credentials) and abused some of his former patients.
Fall from Popularity
Ivaar Lovaas (father of ABA) and Don Moser challenged this concept in 1965, portraying the children as monsters instead of their mothers. Organizations such as Autism Speaks continue dehumanizing Autistic children while promoting mothers as saints for putting up with them.
Studies emerged in the 1970s stating that Autism is genetic and not related to parental attitudes, causing the refrigerator mother concept to fade away.
A few psychologists and researchers continue to maintain the theory, though with a toned down spirit. For instance, Peter R. Breggin, a controversial psychiatrist from the United States, has stated in Toxic Psychiatry that "the psychogenic theory of autism was abandoned for political pressure from parents organizations; not for scientific reasons."
Frances Tustin, a clinician has also commented: "One must note that autism is one of a number of children’s neurological disorders of psychogenic nature, i.e., caused by abusive and traumatic treatment of infants...There is persistent denial by American society of the causes of damage to millions of children who are thus traumatized and brain damaged as a consequence of cruel treatment by parents who are otherwise too busy to love and care for their babies."
It is important to note that some Autistic people have grown up with families that were perfectly loving and who accepted them completely. Dan Aykroyd, Phil Gluyas and Luna Rose are three examples of Autistic people who cite their childhoods as perfectly happy at home.
Autism "Cure" Searches
"[Some parents believe that] the autistic child, in many ways viewed by our society as the ultimate imperfect child, is a visible sign of parental failure." —Amy Tuteur, MD
Dr. Michael Fitzpatrick noted that the vaccine panic and similar anti-autism crusades come from a similar underlying notion: the fear that the mother is to blame.
"In the foreword to Louder Than Words: A Mother's Journey Into Healing Autism, Jenny McCarthy is described as the 'polar opposite' of the 'refrigerator mom', the quasi-demonic figure blamed by a generation of postwar American psychotherapists for causing autism.
Yet the concept of the 'warrior mom,' as McCarthy presents herself in her latest book, is not so much the polar opposite of the 'refrigerator mother' as a distorted mirror image. The 'warrior mom' is yet another reflection of the culture of mother-blaming and a manifestation of the burden of guilt carried by parents as a result of the influence of pseudoscientific speculations about the causes of autism."
By searching for a cure and blaming various environmental elements, parents put the entire responsibility for their child's autism onto their shoulders.
Autistic people have criticized the theory for its incredibly negative view on autism, as well as for being ridiculous and counterproductive. They recommend that parents accept that their child is autistic, recognize that they have done nothing wrong, and instead focus on loving and helping their child.
- ‘Refrigerator Mothers’ Recounts Tragedy of Medical Misdiagnosis
- Mayo Clinic: Reactive attachment disorder causes
- Mayo Clinic: Reactive attachment disorder treatments
- thAutcast: A Video History of Autism: Bruno Bettelheim and Refrigerator Mothers
- thAutcast: A Video History of Autism: "Screams, Slaps" and Ivar Lovaas
- SFARI: Researchers to journalists: Stop blaming mothers
- Rutter M, Andersen-Wood L, Beckett C, et al (1999). "Quasi-autistic patterns following severe early global privation. English and Romanian Adoptees (ERA) Study Team". J Child Psychol Psychiatry 40 (4): 537-49. PMID 10357161
- Tustin, Frances (1991). "Psychogenic autism: Or why you must not blame the water". International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 72: 585 -91
- Thinking Person's Guide to Autism: Autism and Mother-Blame