Living in a progressive world where LGBTQ have their rights, where women stand as equals to men and mental health is not a taboo anymore, can you even imagine an era where mothers were blamed for their child’s ‘autistic syndrome’.
Not by their husbands, relatives or the infamous mother in laws, but by doctors, scientists and the psychiatrists of late 1940’s. They literally stigmatised an entire generation of women and labelled them as ‘Refrigerator mothers’
Referring to be cold, neglectful and abusive! Cold as they could not be thawed or defrosted!
Cold- because they were mechanical and attended to only the material needs of their child.
Sigmund Freud, often called the father of modern day psychiatry developed Psychoanalysis, for interpretation and therapeutic treatment of psychological disorders.
Psychoanalysis is based on the concept of the unconscious mind, and it focuses on emotional disturbance. The result of some early childhood experience of trauma, as the cause of psychological disorders, rather than organic factors in the brain or nervous system.
After his death in 1939, medical experts came up with a theory based on Freud’s psychoanalysis stating that autism was caused by emotional distress and identified the roots of these symptoms to the most dominant person in early life- mothers!
In 1943, Leo Kanner, a Johns Hopkins University psychiatrist, identified autism as a distinct neurological condition. He named the syndrome Early Infantile Autism because it usually appeared sometime during the first three years of life. Before the 1940s, children who would now be called autistic were labeled emotionally disturbed, schizophrenic or psychotic. Kanner was an early expert on autism and his focus on the dysfunctional mother-child relationship helped successive psychiatrists embrace a psychological cause for the disorder, and the “refrigerator mother” theory became the reigning psychiatric orthodox.
The symptoms Asperger identified in 1944 were closely related, but not identical, to Kanner’s Early Infantile Autism. Asperger syndrome sufferers experienced the same difficulty with social interactions as autistic children, but had greater facility with language (often including remarkably large and highly-developed vocabularies) and an unusual grasp of highly technical knowledge. Asperger himself believed that the two were distinct disorders, but many today emphasize the similarity between Asperger syndrome and high-functioning autism and consider them both to be autism spectrum disorders.
Bruno Bettelheim was a renowned University of Chicago professor and child-development specialist.
He was the real villain who worked relentlessly in promoting the “refrigerator mother” theory through his work as a school director. His job and his so called degree in psychology led people to believe and led mothers of autistic children to feelings of guilt and shame.
Substantiated by his own questionable case studies, Bettelheim’s theories likened the lives of autistic children to the experience of prisoners in Nazi concentration camps, where he himself had spent ten months during WWII. He compared the parents, particularly mothers, of autistic children to Nazi guards.
Bernard Rimland- The Hero!
A research psychologist and a parent of an autistic child, played a key role in discrediting this theory and challenged everyone. In 1969, along with a small group of parents, Rimland founded the National Society for Autistic Children, now the Autism Society of America (ASA). Originally run out of the homes of volunteer parents, NSAC broke ground as a public voice for parents of autistic children who rejected the “refrigerator mother” myth.
We can only imagine the horror of those mothers who were blamed and labelled for their own child’s condition.
Today the ludicrous refrigerator theory has been discredited and disproven—an example of the ways in which society tries to blame parents for developmental disorders that are difficult to treat or accept.
And although there is no cure yet for autism, there are better treatments and diagnoses than ever before.
If you have a choice, spread love and kindness, always!Ismat Sameer