The refrigerator mothers

Subject: Mental Health
Type: Analytical Essay
Pages: 11
Word count: 2940
Topics: Autism, Health, Parenting

The term refrigerator mother was popularly sed in describing mothers with autistic children. The term came into existed during the 1940s (Jack, 2017). The word focuses majorly on the attitude of mothers or parents towards their autistic child/children. In a psychological point of view, refrigerator mother is a momentous clinical misdiagnosis influenced by autism. Refrigerator mother is a term that existed for at least two decades that is the 1950s as well as 1960s. About Bruno Bettelheim, the first child development expert during 1950s autism is a biological as well as psychological disturbance arising from isolated as well as detached mothering. Notably, there is great and obvious difference comparing Bruno Bettelheim’s opinion on autism with the current work of authors such as Belli (2012) on the same topic.

According to Belli (2012), autism is a mental condition existing from early childhood associated with intense difficulty in communication, interaction as well as the formation of relationships. On the other hand, Bruno Bettelheim describes autism as a mother-blame psychological condition, which results from poor mothering. It is obvious that Bruno Bettelheim was wrong however it took decades before an expert from the medical community could bring out the real and true meaning of autism. Importantly, the early medical specialist such as Bruno Bettelheim confused Reactive Attachment Disorder with autism. Reactive Attachment Disorder is a condition associated with children that arise due to lack of comfort, affection as well as love (Jack, 2017). It is a fact that Reactive Attachment Disorder is associated with refrigerator mothers; however, it completely has nothing to do with autism. Additionally, Reactive Attachment Disorder, unlike autism, can be easily cured exposing the child to positive and healthy experiences. In the sense of these light, parents, or caregivers, particularly mothers should not be at any point blamed for an autistic condition in a child.

It is necessarily important to discuss the origin of refrigerator mothers to understand the term adequately. On that note, Leo Kanner a family relation expert firstly introduced the idea of refrigerator mothers in 1943. Leo Kanner realized that most parents were unfriendly and in most cases isolated their autistic children. After that, Leo Kanner suggested that parental coldness and isolation might be the major cause of autism. Seemingly, this explains why most child development specialist such as Bruno Bettelheim of 1950s and 1960s concluded that autism is highly related to parental attitude toward the child. Additionally, their premise was that autism condition has its genesis in the negative and unhealthy attitudes of mothers towards their children (Jack, 2017). According to them, the cold and uncaring attitude resulted in inappropriate bondage and poor relationship between the victim and the mother, which eventually led to autism as well as other behavioral related complications.

Moreover, these child development specialists particularly Bruno Bettelheim, stated that children who do not receive adequate and sufficient care, love, attention as well as needs are characterized by high level of anxiety, stress, psychological and emotional instability and unstable behaviors, which result in autism. Moreover, Bruno Bettelheim claims that children who are victims of parental isolation, coldness, as well as detachment are often associated with low esteem, communication difficulties not forgetting difficulties in establishing and retaining long-lasting relationships with family members, neighbors and even outsiders (Jack, 2017). Nonetheless, it was later discovered that Bruno Bettelheim had lied about several issues including his medical credentials, which explained his inappropriate definition of autism as well as refrigerator mothers. It was identified that he had abused and misled a large number of his former patients. After that, several authors including Robertson, (2012) conducted various studies regarding autism and refrigerator mothers leading to reliable and credible information regarding the topics.

Since then, various authors have continued to challenge Bruno Bettelheim as well as Leo Kenner’s opinion concerning the causes of autism. In his research, Iva Lovaa reported that refrigerator mother is a term that should not be perceived as the major cause of the autistic condition in children. On the contrary, he describes children as little monsters forcing mothers to deal with them accordingly. At around 1969, an organization dealing with the psychological and physical development of children announced that mothers are being victimized as the cause of autism condition when they are indeed the only individuals who assist, encourage, and positively influence their autistic children. Notably, this was the beginning of the end of the term refrigerator mothers. Consequently, studies emerged in the 1970s with different and realistic definition and cause of autism.

According to Peter R. Breggin, who presented his definition of autism in 1972, autism condition is a genetic and does not have anything to do with parental attitude (Jack, 2017). Moreover, in 1976, Dan Aykroyd, supported the definition of Peter R. Breggin by confirming that autism is a biological condition highly influenced by one’s genetic inheritance. Similarly, Phil Gluyas and Luna Rose, children development experts latter in 1979 affirmed that autism condition has different characteristics as well as causes and not as Bruno Bettelheim initially claimed. They argued that several autistic individuals have the most loving and caring parents particularly mothers and still they are diagnosed with autism (Robertson, 2012).  Additionally, when an interview was conducted particularly with autistic children together with their parents, most of the children responded positively confirming that they came from peaceful and healthy families. Likewise, their parents stated that they began to realize some abnormal changes in their children roughly after 15months of birth (Jack, 2017).  Notably, after conducting several studies regarding autism as well as interviewing autistic children together with their parents precisely mothers, the term refrigerator mothers lost meaning in the society and finally faded away.

The Theory behind Refrigerator Mothers

The theory of refrigerator mothers can be traced back to 1939. The theory was firstly associated with Sigmund Freud who developed psychoanalysis method for addressing psychological disorders. Freud’s psychoanalysis method had greatly dominated the profession of psychology and had substantial effect in the industry of medicine at large. He based his analysis of psychological disorder on emotional disturbance often resulting from childhood traumatic experiences. He believed that the main cause of psychological disorder was childhood experiences and not genetic factors present in the brain or nervous system (Robertson, 2012). Feud’s theory put great emphasis on childhood stages believing that experiences of the first few years of life greatly contribute to the harmful development of one’s mind. Importantly, the legacy of Feud’s psychoanalysis method is closely related to the early history of autism diagnosis as well as refrigerator mothers. Therefore, it is important to note that early children development experts particularly who operated during the 1940s and 1760s used Feud’s psychoanalysis method define and diagnose autism condition. Most of the medical experts relied on the opinion that emotional instability was the major symptom related to autism and the root of these symptoms was mother’s negative attitude and coldness towards their children.

In 1943, Leo Kanner supported the theory of refrigerator mothers by further attesting that mothers were the main cause of the autistic condition in their children. Leo Kanner defined autism as a distinctive nervous disorder. He referred to the condition as early infant autism since the condition typically appeared within the initial three years after birth (Robertson, 2012).  Markedly, during the 1920s and 1930s, children who were referred to as autistic were said to be emotionally weak, schizophrenic or psychotic. It is necessarily important to confirm that Leo Kanner developed a diagnostic method of autism under precise conditions that assist in explaining the theory of refrigerator mothers. Kanner used a limited sampling of children from different families normally from the highly educated society. Importantly, Leo Kanner was unable to get credible as well as reliable information due to limited sample size and selectiveness. As a result, he made a wrong assumption stating that autistic children were highly associated with intellectual white parents who belonged to the middle status. Though Kanner identified that the incapacity of children to freely interact with others was somehow innate, he strongly stressed that the autistic condition was because of cold nature of their intellectual parents particularly mothers (Robertson, 2012). In his explanation, it is clear that he is referring to refrigerator mothers as the primary cause of the autistic condition in their children. He examines the tending of autistic children as if from a refrigerator that is not thawing. Relying on Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis method to describe autism, Kanner majorly focuses on the dysfunctional mother-child relation as the cause of autism in their children. As a result, successful psychiatrist strongly embraced mother-blame as the cause of the disorder making the refrigerator theory the controlling psychiatric orthodox.

Hans Asperger an Australian psychiatrist worked on the comparable course. Hans Asperger was studying a psychological disorder related to autism. He was strongly intended to find a genetic cause of the disorder (Robertson, 2012). Notably, the indications that Asperger identified were closely connected not matching to Kanner’s Autism. Asperger syndrome victims faced similar difficulties with social interactions as in autism condition. However, the sufferers did not have difficulties in vocabulary and communication; instead, they had highly-developed vocabularies as well as a great comprehension of practical knowledge.

Additionally, Asperger syndrome was included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in the early 1990s. The researchers who existed at around 1750s and 1960s could not sufficiently relate Asperger syndrome and autism. They found the syndrome confusing; perhaps explaining why the Asperger syndrome was not known until the 1970s. It is also important to state that the Asperger syndrome showed a close relation to autism particularly since they shared some characteristics such as interaction difficulties as well as psychological abnormalities. As a result, some children development experts during 1970s could diagnose children for having both autisms as well as Asperger syndrome (Robertson, 2012). At some occasion, the medical specialists could diagnose individuals with either autism or Asperger syndrome depending on the familiarity with either of the terms. Notably, even to date, most researchers, as well as medical experts, are still not sure of the connection between Asperger syndrome and autism. Asperger established that the two conditions were completely dissimilar despite having some common characteristics. However, various healthcare practitioners especially the children development specialists emphasize that the similarities existing between Asperger syndrome as well as high-functioning autism make the two condition to be autism spectrum disorders.

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Bruno Bettelheim also contributed largely to the development of the theory of refrigerator mothers. He was a renowned University of Chicago professor at the same time served as children development expert (Robertson, 2012). Right from the 1940s to the late 1960s, Bruno Bettelheim worked as a director of Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School at the university. The institution was popularly known for handling children diagnosed with behavioral as well as psychological disorders. Through his work at the organization, Bruno Bettelheim developed a positive standing as a greatly rated expert in the management of autistic children. He was also an influential figure who greatly contributed to promoting the theory of refrigerator mothers.

Building upon Kanner’s initial study, Bruno Bettelheim confirmed that there was an emotional complication in autism, which was developed in children due to psychological damage initiated by their mothers. Bruno Bettelheim related autism condition with his experience from the prisoners in Nazi concentration camps, for more than ten months he was victimized during World War II. He made a comparison of mothers of autistic kids and the Nazi guards who were ruthless and inconsiderate. Remarkably, the principal factor that qualified refrigerator mother’s theory malicious was the level through which the theory was deliberated and shared via media. Bruno Bettelheim was popularly known as a charismatic man and a person of high integrity (Robertson, 2012). He gained positive public status and greatly influenced the media activities. Additionally, he published his studies and findings including the popular books the empty Fortress, Infantile Autism as well as The Birth of the Self. His publications greatly influenced the development of refrigerator mothers’ theory from one place to the other. Importantly, he further popularized the theory of refrigerator mothers through national-prime televise shows, where he occasionally held talks regarding autism condition and its relation to mothers’ attitude and behaviors towards the children.

The Impact on Mothers and their Children

Impact on mothers

Mothers that were diagnosed as refrigerator mothers faced a wide range of challenges in not only their homes but the entire community as well (Oller & Oller, 2010). Firstly, these kinds of mothers were denied the privilege of continuing to offer parental guidance and assistance to the children. Their family members perceived them as the major cause of the autistic condition in their children (Robertson, 2012). In that case, these mothers were a source of great harm to their children. Additionally, their family members believed that they could not bring any good to the children since their coldness, as well as negative attitude, had caused the autistic condition in the children.

Secondly, some mothers that were perceived as refrigerator mothers were ex-communicated from the society claiming that they represented bad luck and bad motherhood. Refrigerator mothers were forced out of their homes to unknown places to save community the wrath of having such mothers. Moreover, the community believed that such individuals did not deserve to live among humans since they were able to cause great danger and damage to the entire society. The refrigerator mothers were not allowed to take anything such as clothes, food and other important materials as they were being driven out of the community (Jepson, 2017). Notably, such actions posed a great danger to these women especially since they had no one to turn to. Some of these women ended up committing suicide while some were found dead in the streets due to continuous starvation and stress.

Thirdly, women that were diagnosed as refrigerator mothers were ripped off their duties as well as positions in their work places as well as the community (Belli, 2012). The mothers that were working in public organizations such as schools, healthcare facilities as well as commercial organizations were rendered incompetent and therefore unable to continue with their work. These mothers were perceived as monsters for having caused the autistic condition in their children. The company’s owner stopped them from working claiming that their actions would ruin the organization’s public reputation. Additionally, co-workers of these mothers were not ready to freely associate with them for being diagnosed as refrigerator mothers. These mothers could not secure job position at any other organization due to a bad recommendation received from their previous working place. Consequently, most of them ended-up living frustrated and detached lives (Jack, 2017). Similarly, refrigerator mothers lost their position in community leadership with the assumption that they could not be good leaders since they failed as mothers. Their leadership positions were transferred to other women who known to be responsible and good mothers to their children.

Lastly, women that were considered as refrigerator mothers were faced with legal charges for mistreating and abusing their children. Refrigerator mothers were accused of causing great danger to innocent children (Robertson, 2012). Furthermore, they were considered great danger in case they continued living and attending to their autistic children. As a result, some were sentenced to less than three years imprisonment while some were sentenced to more than five years. The judgment was based on the gravity of the mother’s actions to the child. In other words, the judgment was passed in consideration of the level of negativity found in the child.

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Impact on children

Having a mother diagnosed as refrigerator mother was not something to be proud of particularly since such mothers were viewed as monsters. On that note, the case of refrigerator mothers had adverse effects on children (Bernier & Gerdts, 2010). Firstly, children of mothers diagnosed as refrigerator mothers found it difficult to freely interact and communicate with family members, neighbors as well as friends. These children often isolated themselves from others with the fear of being judged and insulted. Additionally, these children rarely participated in any communal activities knowing well that people knew their stories. It was noticeable that such children lived in constant fear of being mistreated and lowly regarded since their mothers failed to show them love and concern.

Secondly, children associated with refrigerator mothers lived an abnormal life compared to their counterparts. These individuals did not have the desire to continue living like other kids. Moreover, they occasionally lacked interest in any activity that was communal or family oriented. These children participated less in self-development program and rarely joined others in any course (Benaron, 2013). Most importantly, these individuals failed to lead normal and healthy lives like their fellow kids. They were often associated with health-related complications such as emotional instability, high blood pressure, as well as nervous system breakdown. Lastly, some of these children ended-up running away from home, and some were reported dead due to suicidal actions.

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  1. Benaron, L. D. (2013). Autism. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press.
  2. Bernier, R., & Gerdts, J. (2010). Autism spectrum disorders: A reference handbook. Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO.
  3. Belli, B. (2012). The autism puzzle: Connecting the dots between environmental toxins and rising autism rates. New York: Seven Stories Press.
  4. Jack, J. (2017). Autism and gender: From refrigerator mothers to computer geeks. Urbana:  University of Illinois Press.
  5. Jepson, B. (2017). Changing the course of autism: A scientific approach for parents and physicians. Boulder, CO: Sentient Publications.
  6. Oller, J. W., & Oller, S. D. (2010). Autism: The diagnosis, treatment, & etiology of the undeniable epidemic. Sudbury, Mass: Jones and Bartlett.
  7. Robertson, R. (2012). Reaching one thousand: A story of love, motherhood & autism. Collingwood, Victoria, Australia : Black Inc.
  8. Rosaler, M. (2004). Coping with Asperger syndrome. New York: Rosen Pub. Group.
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