On “refrigerator mothers” and genetics

If you’re an autism parent, you’ve probably heard the “Refrigerator Mother” theory. This is the execrable belief that autism is caused by a cold, uncaring mother. Sadly, the hypothesis persists despite its flaws. Current research is investigating the genetics of autism, and ironically the refrigerator mother may be supporting evidence for a genetic basis to autism.
The theory originated with Leo Kanner, and was championed by Bruno Bettelheim (amongst others). Kanner reported that his patients’ parents were themselves analytical and unemotional, and showed a “genuine lack of warmth”. In a later paper, “Problems of nosology and psychodynamics of early infantile autism”, he mentioned “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.”
And this was where he made his big error.
Although Kanner insisted that autism was innate, he failed to ask the obvious question: were the parents themselves autistic? The descriptions above are strong pointers to autism. Had he done this, the genetic basis of autism may have become the primary field of investigation very early on. Unfortunately he didn’t, and his remarks were distorted into the vile hypothesis that caused so much needless guilt. Kanner later complained that his comments were taken out of context. It is probably true that they were, but his failure to follow up such an obvious lead is surprising.
The huge irony is that the “refrigerator mother” theory is correct, but not in the way that its supporters thought. The parents were themselves autistic, and passed their genes on to their children.


About autismjungle

I am a Software Test Analyst. Shortly before I turned 21 I was officially diagnosed, although I had long suspected I was autistic. Welcome to my blog
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2 Responses to On “refrigerator mothers” and genetics

  1. nikki says:

    i have come across the term at the time my son was diagnosed, also watched the docu of 2003. It’s pretty shocking and ironically, I almost raised my son with ASD in one of the few countries where the theory still has wide support to this day. (France)
    Although I have personally 2 males (my father and my brother) in my family who I believe to be on the spectrum, I do not agree to the hypothesis of solely genetic reasons for the occurrence of autism. Research is simply not yet concluding, and I happen to check other, currently discussed and researched possible factors (like age of parents, under-oxygenation of the brain at birth) . Also, I must vehemently refuse any theory that might contribute to the misconception that autists are “emotionless” or “cold”. It is not the reality I know. I understand you have Asperger’s, like my son and you might struggle with what is perceived as the immediate and ‘appropriate’ expression of general human feelings at times, but that does not mean that you do not feel them, or are unable to express them at all, does it ?
    Another point is that not only Kanner, but also Bruno Bettelheim has contributed largely to spreading the idea of the refrigerator mothers. And while his personal experiences may have qualified him to tentative judgement or research on what extreme circumstances can do to your own capacity to feel and socially interact (people with severe PTSD can display “autistic traits” following to trauma), he has been so fully discredited by his isolating treatment and alleged abuse of autistic children that I cannot accept his outrageous labelling of mothers as refrigerators in our time, autistic or not.

    • autismjungle says:

      Thank you for your comments. I agree with you that genetics may not be the sole cause of autism, and I’m sorry if I gave you that impression. I also agree with you that autistics are not cold. I find it difficult to express my emotions but I do feel them. I do hope you realise I was condemning the “Refrigerator Mother” theory, not supporting it.

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