History Stories

Now discredited, the theory painted mothers of kids with autism spectrum disorders as neglectful and cold.

Donald had an astonishing memory, but never cried for his mother. Virginia never played with other children and was the daughter of a woman described as “not by any means the mother type” by her husband. Herbert didn’t speak; his mother, a physician, said she couldn’t understand people and instead chose to accept them.

Each child waseventually determined to be on the autism spectrum—and each of their mothers was thought to be part of the reason they had the condition. Between the 1940s and 1960s, mothers of children with autism were dubbed “refrigerator mothers” and characterized as cold, neglectful, and even abusive.

The now discredited theory blamed mothers for “causing” their children’s autism—and stigmatized an entire generation of women struggling to understand and care for children with autism spectrum disorders.

The theory has its roots in statements by Leo Kanner, the first psychiatrist to clearly define autism. In a 1943paper—the first to define the condition—Kanner described the parents of 11 children with what he called “autistic disturbances of affective contact.” He called them intelligent but obsessive, often documenting their child’s every move in an attempt to diagnose and control their condition, and wrote that “in the whole group, there are very few really warmhearted fathers and mothers.”

Leo Kanner, 1963. (Credit: JHU Sheridan Libraries/Gado/Getty Images)

Leo Kanner, 1963. (Credit: JHU Sheridan Libraries/Gado/Getty Images)

Kanner kept working with children with autism, and three years later he observed that “most of the patients were exposed from the beginning to parental coldness, obsessiveness, and a mechanical type of attention to material needs only…They were kept neatly in refrigerators which did not defrost.”

At the time, Freudian psychology dominated the medical and cultural landscape, and parents (especially the mother) were thought to be capable of causing and fostering a variety of mental and neurological conditions in their children. Bruno Bettelheim, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago, believed in the Freudian model and felt that Kanner’s work strongly suggested that mothers caused autism in their children.

A Holocaust survivor who spent time in Dachau and Buchenwald, Bettelheim was director of the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School for Disturbed Children, a residential facility that treated children who were considered emotionally disturbed. During the 1950s and 1960s, Bettelheim made a name for himself as an autism specialist.

He used his platform to push the “refrigerator mother theory,” theorizing that the condition was primarily caused by neglect. In his view, pathologically aloof parents could trigger autism in their children when they responded to perceived withdrawals of their young children by withholding affection, causing a chain reaction that resulted in a psychological disorder.

Bruno Bettelheim, 1969. (Credit: Jack Manning/The New York Times/Redux)

Bruno Bettelheim, 1969. (Credit: Jack Manning/The New York Times/Redux)

To a modern reader, the parents’ behavior may have had a variety of causes. Perhaps the parents were so overwhelmed by caring for a child with autism that they seemed preoccupied to an outside viewer. Perhaps they didn’t express affection to their children in ways that made sense to Kanner and Bettelheim. Or perhaps they themselves were on the autism spectrum.

Bettelheim didn’t conduct medical studies to test his theories, but he did write about them at length. In 1967, he published a popular book called The Empty Fortress that compared life with “refrigerator mothers” to growing up in a concentration camp. Bettelheim’s personal experiences during the Holocaust and prominence in the media gave him a supposed authority that was hard to refute.

“It is enough that the infant be convinced that his life is run by insensitive, irrational powers who have complete control over his life and death,”wrote Bettelheim. “Infantile autism is a state of mind that develops in reaction to feeling oneself in an extreme situation, entirely without hope.”

As a result of Bettelheim’s work, mothers found themselves under the microscope when they sought help for their children. Many blamed themselves for “causing” their children’s conditions. Some mothers protested their portrayal as cold and abusive, but due to the prominence of the theory, “Guilt, shame, and pain accompanied the already challenging day to day experience for parents trying to raise a child with a significant disability,”write autism experts Raphael Bernier and Jennifer Gerdts.

Eventually, researchers began to realize that the condition is rooted in biology, not parenting, and that its behaviors fall along a spectrum. In the late 1960s, as the refrigerator mother theory gained traction, Kanner began to take a softer view of the parents he had once seen as “cold.” In a 1969 speech, hetold a group of caretakers that “I officially acquit you people as parents.”

Shannon Zimmerman and her son Logan who has autism, in their home in Westminster, Colorado, 2012. (Credit: Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Shannon Zimmerman and her son Logan who has autism, in their home in Westminster, Colorado, 2012. (Credit: Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Meanwhile, scientists had begun to accumulate the evidence they’d need to overturn the misconception that autism is merely psychological in nature. In 1964, Bernard Rimland published the first book that posited that it had a biological basis, and over the years researchers turned away from the concept of refrigerator mothers to concepts of biology and genetics. Though scientists have not yet pinpointed a single biological cause of autism, they suspect it’s linked either to a particular gene or a cluster of inherited genes that may be triggered to cause the condition.

Like the disease itself, Bettelheim wasn’t what he seemed, either. After his death from suicide in 1990, he was accused of abuse at the school he ran. A typical experience was described by Charles Pekow, a writer who spent a decade at the Orthogenic School as a child. Pekow and othersaccused Bettelheim of slapping, tormenting, beating, sexually abusing and humiliating students. “He created a climate of fear,” recalled Pekow in an article for the Washington Post. “We could never tell when he would attack us for any arbitrary reason.”

Then, reporters began to question the very credentials upon which Bettelheim had built his career. Biographers revealed that he did not have a degree or any formal training in psychology, but rather exaggerated his prewar education. It’s unclear what Bettelheim’s degree was in—conflicting accounts claim both philosophy and art history—but his career seems to have been built on a foundation of deception and exaggeration.

Today, the refrigerator mother theory has been disproven—an example of the ways in which society tries to blame parents for developmental disorders that are difficult to treat or accept. Today, autism spectrum disorder is recognized as a group of conditions; the Centers for Disease Control and Preventionestimates that one in every 68 children has ASD. And though there’s no cure, there are better treatments and diagnoses than ever before, thanks in part to passionate advocacy by parents of children with autism spectrum disorders.

Bettelheim’s discredited theory is now seen as outlandish as his made-up credentials—but until ASD is better understood, it seems likely that it will always be tempting to find another scapegoat, from vaccines to “toxins,” to blame.

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