Why Unloving Mothers Were Blamed for Autism

The term "refrigerator mother" was coined to describe a parent whose cold, uncaring style so traumatized her child that he retreated into autism. The expression was originally coined by Leo Kanner, who gave autism its name. This concept caused enormous pain to many families for decades before it was debunked in the 1960s.

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 autism pioneers Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger began to explore the disorder, they worked almost primarily with upper-class parents whose self-presentation may have appeared formal and cold. 

Leo Kanner is credited with having coined the phrase "Refrigerator Mother," probably in the 1930s. Though he 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 "Refrigerator Mother"

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 "Refrigerator Mother" Theory

Dr. Bernard Rimland, the deceased 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.

Parents and Autism Today

Today, it is generally agreed that autism is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors — and unrelated to "cold mothering." Nevertheless, parents are still in the hot seat. While they are not accused of causing their children's autism, they are often expected to treat or discover treatments for it. Whether as therapists and advocates or as researchers and medical decision-makers, parents are still in a position of overwhelming responsibility.

Coping With Guilt

Parenting a child with autism is hard work. One of the hardest aspects is managing the feelings of guilt that come with the diagnosis. Did we cause the problem by allowing vaccinations? By exposing our child to a toxin? By passing along the wrong genes? The reality is that, while parents can play a positive role in an autistic child's life, they simply don't have the ability to prevent, cause, or cure their child's autism spectrum disorder.

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  1. Blakemore, E (from History). Psychologists once blamed ‘refrigerator moms’ for their kids’ autism. Updated August 22, 2018.

  2. NIH Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. What causes autism? Updated January 31, 2017.

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