Sometimes I think it is worth while to step back in time for a few minutes … to get an understanding of what things might have been like for those that have walked in our shoes. What now seems unthinkable but it was not that long ago that mothers were blamed for their children’s autism. Refrigerator Mothers they were called, not just in the popular media but by medical professionals. It is hard to think that this could have been me ..
The term refrigerator mother was coined during the 1950s as a label to describe a parent (mostly mothers) whose cold nature and uncaring style of parenting was believed to have traumatized their children to the point of “causing” their autism. These mothers were often blamed for their children’s atypical behavior, speech difficulty, and self-isolation.
What are the origins in the use of this term?
Leo Kaner in his 1943 paper that first identified autism highlighted what appeared to him as a lack of warmth from parents of children with autism. In his 1949 paper he suggested that autism may be related to a “genuine lack of maternal warmth” and observed that children were exposed from “the beginning to parental coldness, obsessiveness, and a mechanical type of attention to material needs only…. They were left neatly in refrigerators which did not defrost. Their withdrawal seems to be an act of turning away from such a situation to seek comfort in solitude.” In a 1960 Time Magazine interview, Kaner bluntly described parents of autistic children as “just happening to defrost enough to produce a child.”
Who championed and popularized the notion of Refrigerator Mothers?
Bruno Bettelheim, a University of Chicago professor and child development specialist whose articles, primarily in the 1950s and 1960s, championed the notion that autism was the product of mothers who were cold, distant and rejecting and gave it popularity. He later took hold of the idea of the refrigerator mother and likened these parents to guards in a Nazi concentration camp. In his book The Empty Fortress: Infantile Autism and the Birth of the Self, he said
The difference between the plight of prisoners in a concentration camp and the conditions which lead to autism and schizophrenia in children is, of course, that the child has never had a previous chance to develop much of a personality.
When was this debunked?
This disastrous theory began to be seriously challenged in the mid-1960’s and by the early 1970’s, the idea of “refrigerator mothers” was no longer accepted. Dr. Bernard Rimland and his work was instrumental in attacking and destroying the notion of the “refrigerator mothers”. He was a very important person within the Autism community being instrumental in the formation of the Autism Society of America and founding the Autism Research Institute.
It sadness me to think of what mothers had to go through not that long ago .. very little resources and support and then the blame for their children’s condition. It is just terrible. Things are getting better .. particularly in this regard .. but there is still a long way to go …
(Image Refrigerator by kenfagerdotcom, on Flickr -Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)Photo of inside of fridge by Dev Benjamin on Unsplash