Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Clinic Notes: Refrigerator Mothers

After American psychiatrist Leo Kanner published the first paper on autism in 1943, psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim wrote extensively about so-called “refrigerator mothers,” who were emotionally cold and rejecting. According to Bettelheim these mothers caused a psychosis in their children which was similar to schizophrenia. (Very few autistic children actually develop adult schizophrenia.) Unfortunately, mothers at the time not only had to deal with an autistic child, they also had to deal with their guilt. In the 1960s, following the publication of Bernard Rimland’s Infantile Autism many psychologists, psychiatrists, and of course neurologists, thought biological factors caused autism. I had dinner with Bettelheim in the early 1970s and I tried to discuss with him the role of biological factors in autism. He refused to accept the possibility and told me in no uncertain terms to go read his books. There I would find all of the answers to my questions. At the time he was still saying, for a fee, that moms caused autism. I experienced Bettelheim as a grouchy, depressed old man, and I’ve often wondered if he knew he was wrong and felt badly about all of the guilt he’d caused mothers. (I’d like to think there’s a certain amount of justice in the world.) Excerpted from Little Bubba's Not Ready for Nashville Yet" Available at


estherplank said...

Hi Dr. Brown. I am now working independently doing ABA techniques with five children who have been diagnosed with Autism. (By the way, a BIG thanks to you for introducing me to ABA and helping me to find my passion--helping these children and their familes.) Anyway, all of the children range in age from 2 and a half to 9 years old, and they have a variety of abilities. When I am talking to the mothers, I am often overcome by the amount of guilt that they and the fathers feel about their children having Autism. They tell me that they wish they had seen the symptoms earlier, they wish that they had held their baby more or less when he was little...they wish they wouldn't have let their child watch so many videos. I know, because of the research I did with you that the child's Autism is not at all because of the mother, but, unfortuately, these mothers are constantly bombarded with "reasons," like immunizations, or mercury in tuna fish, and other such things. I guess I am rambling a bit, but it's just unfortunate that more mothers don't know that THEY didn't do anything to cause their child to have Autism. Perhaps Bettleheim WAS a bitter old man because he caused all these mothers so much pain...I just wish that he could have been enough of a scientist...heck, even enough of a admit that he was wrong. Only when these mothers know that they didn't do anything do I really think that their children will get the help they need.

Dr. Brown said...

You are right it is a problem. The best thing to do is to get the mothers involved in running ABA programs for their
children. When they see progress the guilt problem usually gets better.