Why "Refrigerator" Mothers Were Blamed for Autism

The term "refrigerator mother" was coined by Austrian psychiatrist Leo Kanner in the 1940s to describe a mother whose cold, uncaring style so traumatized her child that they retreated into autism. The concept caused enormous pain for many families for decades before it was debunked.

Frustrated stressed african mom feel tired annoyed about noisy kids
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Origin of the "Refrigerator Mother" Theory

Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychology, believed that almost all psychological issues stemmed from early childhood trauma. Autism was believed to be a form of mental illness, and so it was logical to assume that it was caused by early trauma.

Later, as Kanner and autism expert Hans Asperger began to explore the disorder, they worked almost primarily with upper-class parents whose self-presentation may have appeared formal and cold. Though Kanner believed that autism was probably innate in the child, he also noted an apparent coldness on the part of his patients' mothers and assumed that this added to the problem.

How Bruno Bettelheim Popularized the Concept

Bruno Bettelheim, a renowned professor of child development, was most prominent between the 1940s and the 1970s. He was a great self-promoter, and often cited in the media. He took hold of the idea of the refrigerator mother and likened these parents to guards in a Nazi concentration camp.

Bettelheim's book "The Empty Fortress: Infantile Autism and the Birth of the Self," along with his appearances on national prime-time television shows and in popular magazines, helped turned the concept of the "refrigerator" mother into a popularly accepted idea.

Debunking the Theory

Bernard Rimland, the late founder and director of the Autism Research Institute, is credited with debunking this myth. As the parent of a child with autism, he had a vested interested in exploring and better understanding causes of autism, and in erasing the popular concept that poor parenting was to blame.

His research, along with his work in bringing parents together as self-advocates, changed thinking about the roots of autism. By the early 1970s, the idea of "refrigerator mothers" was no longer accepted, and parenting approaches were no longer the focus of research into the causes of autism.

Today, it is generally agreed that autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors, and unrelated to "cold mothering."

A Word From Verywell

Parenting a child with autism is hard work, and, despite the fact the that notion of "bad parenting" as a cause has been debunked, many parents still feel guilty when their child receives a diagnosis. Because no one knows for sure what causes ASD, it's easy to worry that you may have contributed in some way. It's important to understand that you can certainly be a positive force in your child's life, but you can't prevent, cause, or cure your child's autism.

3 Sources
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  1. Blakemore, E. Psychologists once blamed ‘refrigerator moms’ for their kids’ autism. History.com.

  2. The Autism History Project. Bruno Bettelheim 1903-1990.

  3. Sandler S. “It’s all my fault!” Understanding guilt in parents of children with ASD. Autism Spectrum News.

By Lisa Jo Rudy
Lisa Jo Rudy, MDiv, is a writer, advocate, author, and consultant specializing in the field of autism.