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Refrigerator Mothers

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Updated August 11, 2006

What's a Refrigerator Mother?:

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.

Where Did the Idea of Refrigerator Mothers Originate?:

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.

Who Coined the Term Refrigerator Mother?:

Leo Kanner is credited with having coined the phrase. Though he believed that autism was probably innate in the child, he also noted an apparent coldness on the part of the mothers, and assumed that this added to the problem.

Who Popularized the Term Refrigerator Mother?:

Bruno Bettelheim, a renowned professor of child development, was most prominent between the 1940's and the 1970's. He was also 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.

Who Debunked the Idea of Refrigerator Mothers?:

Dr. Bernard Rimland, now the director of the Autism Institute, is credited with debunking this myth. His research, along with his work in bringing parents together as self-advocates, changed thinking about the roots of autism. By the early 1970's, the idea of "refrigerator mothers" was no longer accepted.

Were Kanner and Asperger Wrong?:

Kanner and Asperger both believed that the parents of many of their patients seemed "cold." While this could have been a cultural issue, or simply wrong, I suspect there may be more to it. Given that recent research suggests that autism is strongly related to genetics, is it possible that Kanner and Asperger were actually seeing very mild signs of autism in these "cold" parents?

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? And..shouldn't we be doing more to help solve the problem? Ten Tips for Handling Guilt addresses some of the those feelings, and may help parents place their feelings in perspective.

Resources:

The historic information in this article is based on resources found on the website for the PBS Point of View Film, Refrigerator Mothers.
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