Sunday, February 20, 2011

Autism: Refrigerator Mothers

Autism was thought to have a cure from the 1950s to the 1970s. It was devastation to many mothers of an autistic child - not to mention the stigma attached to each of these women.

During this period it was believed that the medical establishment had found the cause to autism. It was said that the disability was due to poor mothering - hence the moms received the label, "Refrigerator Mothers." It was believed that their poor mothering skills along with their emotional frigidity caused autism. Doctors said their cold behavior toward their child led the autistic daughter or son to have speech difficulties, problems in socializing with others, and their never-ending rituals.

What a cruel punishment these women suffered! Their life was obviously difficult enough raising an autistic child. Then, to be labeled as a "Refrigerator Mother," this could do nothing less than cause them continued mental anguish, low self-esteem, and many other issues.

It is difficult to believe, or understand, that this term was created by one man - Bruno Bettleheim and that the medical community bought his explanation hook, line, and sinker. Although Bettleheim was one of the first child development specialists to focus on autism he was far from being an expert. His self-proclaimed "cause" is certainly proof of this.

Bettleheim used the comparison of autistic children and Nazi concentration camp prisoners. He believed there was a direct correlation between some autistic children and the prisoners. Therefore, he "determined" that autism is a psychological disturbance caused by mothers who were unusually "cold" to their autistic child. He compared the autistic child to how the prisoners reacted to the cold authority of the Nazi concentration camp guards. Bettleheim had been once been a prisoner in a concentration camp.

If Bettleheim made such a claim today he would most likely be sent to a locked facility instead of a concentration camp. It is difficult to believe that all of society, all of the medical community, everyone bought into Bettleheim's "diagnosis." The fact it took decades to prove his theory was way out in left field is somewhat confusing and disturbing. It seems people accepted the theory without questioning it.

Fortunately, if such a conclusion was reached today it would not take two decades to ascertain that it is such a foolish conclusion. We have people in the medical profession who question every new piece of information that is brought to the autism community. Still, this does not make up for the hurt and pain the mothers of his era suffered when they did the best they could to raise their autistic child.

It was a sad, unfortunate part of autism history.

By Jack E. George

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