Refrigerator mother theory
The terms refrigerator mother and refrigerator parents were coined around 1950 as a label for mothers and parents of children diagnosed with autism or schizophrenia. When Leo Kanner first identified autism in 1943, he noted the lack of warmth among the parents of autistic children. Parents, particularly mothers, were often blamed for their children's atypical behavior, which included rigid rituals, speech difficulty, and self-isolation.
In fact, parents of autistic children were often relatively cold to them, but that was because autistic children don't elicit warmth from adults the way typical children do. Psychologists wrongly inferred that the parents' coldness was the cause of their children's autism. As a result, mothers of some children on the autistic spectrum suffered from blame, guilt, and self-doubt from the 1950s throughout the 1970s and beyond, when the prevailing medical belief that autism resulted from inadequate parenting was widely assumed to be correct. Some present-day proponents of the psychogenic theory of autism continue to maintain that the condition is a result of poor parenting. However, others merely point out that some conditions are perhaps psychological in origin rather than physiological, and that this is not necessarily a reflection on parenting skills.
Origins of theory
In his 1943 paper that first identified autism, Leo Kanner called attention to what appeared to him as a lack of warmth among the fathers and mothers of autistic children. In a 1949 paper, Kanner suggested autism may be related to a "genuine lack of maternal warmth", noted that fathers rarely stepped down to indulge in children's play, 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 interview, Kanner bluntly described parents of autistic children as "just happening to defrost enough to produce a child."
Although Kanner was instrumental in framing the refrigerator mother theory, it was Bruno Bettelheim, a University of Chicago professor and child development specialist, who facilitated its widespread acceptance both by the public and by the experts in the medical establishment in the 1950s and 1960s. In the absence of any biomedical explanation for what causes autism after the telltale symptoms were first described by scientists, Bettelheim and other leading psychoanalysts championed the notion that autism was the product of mothers who were cold, distant and rejecting, thus deprived of the chance to "bond properly". Bettelheim founded the Orthogenic School at the University of Chicago as a residential treatment milieu for such children, whom he felt would benefit from a "parentectomy". This marked the apex of autism viewed as a disorder of parenting.
The theory was embraced by the medical establishment and went largely unchallenged into the mid-1960s, but its effects have lingered into the 21st century. Many articles and books published in that era blamed autism on a maternal lack of affection, but by 1964, Bernard Rimland, a psychologist who had a son with autism, published a book that signaled the emergence of a counter-explanation to the established misconceptions about the causes of autism. His book, Infantile Autism: The Syndrome and its Implications for a Neural Theory of Behavior, attacked the refrigerator mother hypothesis directly.
Soon afterwards, Bettelheim wrote The Empty Fortress: Infantile Autism and the Birth of the Self, in which he compared autism to being a prisoner in a concentration camp:
"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."
Some authority was granted to this as well, because Bettelheim had himself been interned at the Dachau concentration camp before World War II. The book was immensely popular and he became a leading public figure on autism until his death, but he became controversial after a biography, written 7 years after his death by a disgruntled cousin of a patient, claimed that he exaggerated his credentials and Dachau experiences. Also, three ex-patients questioned his work, characterizing him as a cruel tyrant.
In 1969, Kanner addressed the refrigerator mother issue at the first annual meeting of what is now the Autism Society of America, stating:
From the very first publication until the last, I spoke of this condition in no uncertain terms as "innate." But because I described some of the characteristics of the parents as persons, I was misquoted often as having said that "it is all the parents' fault."
Other notable psychiatrists
For Silvano Arieti, who wrote his major works from the 1950s through the 70s, the terms autistic thought and what he called paleologic thought are apparently the same phenomenon. Paleologic thought is a characteristic in both present-day schizophrenics and primitive men, a type of thinking that has its foundations in non-Aristotelian logic. An autistic child speaks of himself as "you" and not infrequently of the mother as "I." The "you" remains a "you" and is not transformed into "I".
For Margaret Mahler and her colleagues, autism is a defense of children who cannot experience the mother as the living primary-object. According to them, autism is an attempt at dedifferentiation and deanimation. The symbiotic autistic syndrome used to be called the "Mahler syndrome" because Mahler first described it: The child is unable to differentiate from the mother.
Arieti warned that an autistic tendency is a sign of a kind of disorder in the process of socialization, and that when autistic expressions appear it should be assumed that there is a sort of difficulty between the child and his parents, especially the schizogenic mother. Children who use autistic expressions, Arieti observes, are children who cannot bond socially.
In Interpretation of Schizophrenia Arieti maintained that for a normal process of socialization, it is necessary for the parent-child relations to be normal. Loving or non-anxiety parental attitudes favor socialization. Arieti not only maintained that the parent-child relations are the first social act and the major drive of socialization, but also a stimulus to either accept or reject society. The child's self in this view is a reflection of the sentiments, thoughts, and attitudes of the parents toward the child. Autistic children show an extreme socializing disorder and do not want any sort of relationship with people. They "eliminate" people from their consciousness. For Arieti the fear of the parents is extended to other adults: a tendency to cut off communication with human beings.
Persistence of the theory
According to Peter Breggin’s 1991 book Toxic Psychiatry, the psychogenic theory of autism was abandoned for political pressure from parents' organizations, not for scientific reasons. For example, some case reports have shown that profound institutional privation can result in quasi-autistic symptoms. Clinician Frances Tustin devoted her life to the theory. She wrote:
One must note that autism is one of a number of children's neurological disorders of psychogenic nature, i.e., caused by abusive and traumatic treatment of infants.… There is persistent denial by American society of the causes of damage to millions of children who are thus traumatized and brain damaged as a consequence of cruel treatment by parents who are otherwise too busy to love and care for their babies.
Alice Miller, one of the best-known authors of the consequences of child abuse, has maintained that autism is psychogenic, and that fear of the truth about child abuse is the leitmotif of nearly all forms of autistic therapy known to her. When Miller visited several autism therapy centers in the United States, it became apparent to her that the stories of children "inspired fear in both doctors and mothers alike":
I spent a day observing what happened to the group. I also studied close-ups of children on video. What became clearer and clearer as the day went on was that all these children had a serious history of suffering behind them. This, however, was never referred to.… In my conversations with the therapists and mothers, I inquired about the life stories of individual children. The facts confirmed my hunch. No one, however, was willing to take these facts seriously.
Like Arieti and Tustin, Miller believes that only empathetic parental attitudes lead to the complete blossoming of the child’s personality.
The refrigerator mother theory, widely discarded in the United States, still has some support in France and Europe and is largely believed in South Korea to be the cause of autism. The academic psychologist Tony Humphreys of University College Cork is a leading Irish proponent of the theory of frigid parenting, despite censure by the Psychological Society of Ireland.
The modern consensus is that autism has a strong genetic basis, although the genetics of autism are complex and are not well understood. Although recent studies have indicated that maternal warmth, praise, and quality of relationship are associated with reductions of behavior problems in adolescents and adults with autism, and that maternal criticisms are associated with maladaptive behaviors and symptoms, these ideas are distinct from the refrigerator mother hypothesis.
In 2003, Kartemquin Films released Refrigerator Mothers, a documentary that takes a look at American mothers of the 1950s and 1960s and the blame leveled by the medical establishment for the mothers causing their children's autism. The documentary gives voice to women who no longer accept the blame that was once common for mothers of autistic children. Making its television premiere on PBS's P.O.V. series, Refrigerator Mothers was featured in a January 2010 issue of Psychology Today that focused on the racial and class stereotyping of autism.
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