If anything could be more devastating to a mother than having her child succumb to autism, it might be having to shoulder the blame for the affliction. That’s what happened to a generation of mothers in the 1950s and ’60s, when medical orthodoxy blamed autism on the mother’s failure to bond with her child. Though wholly discredited today, the “refrigerator mother” diagnosis condemned thousands of autistic children to questionable therapies, and their mothers to a long nightmare of self-doubt and guilt.
In Refrigerator Mothers, the new film by David E. Simpson, J.J.Hanley and Gordon Quinn, and a Kartemquin Educational Films production, these mothers tell their story for the first time.
Today, we know autism as a mysterious, even frightening neurological disorder that affects more than one in 500 American people. Typically its victims seem to begin life as normal, active babies only to slip into varying states of mental isolation, marked by speech difficulties, self-imposed social isolation and obsessive, ritualistic behavior.
In the ’50s and ’60s, however, an entirely different view held sway. In retrospect, it seems incredible — and not a little disturbing — that the medical establishment should have based its understanding of autism on a sweeping comparison made by one man. Bruno Bettleheim was one of the first child development specialists to focus on autism, but his explanation for its origin was breathtakingly wrong.
Bettleheim, who had spent time in a Nazi concentration camp, believed he saw parallels between the behavior of some camp prisoners and autistic children. This led him to posit that autism was a psychological disturbance arising from detached and “frigid” mothering — something akin to how prisoners reacted to the cold authority of camp guards.
The shock is not so much that Bettleheim could be so wrong as that it took decades before anyone in the medical community listened to the few lone voices, such as Bernard Rimland, Eric Schopler and the mothers themselves, who had been challenging the unfounded theory of mother-blame since the early 1960s.
Refrigerator Mothers shows that many of the women branded “refrigerator mothers” had successfully raised other children. Deeply shaken to be told they were the cause of such a nightmare in one of their children — a judgment driven home by the fact that one popular therapy was to remove the child from the mother — many of the women, over time, resisted the verdict of medical authority. Most tellingly, these mothers continue to care for and advocate for their autistic children today — a dramatic demonstration of a bond that has outlasted scientific error and unfounded accusation and blame.
Refrigerator Mothers compels us to closely examine how we understand the role of the medical establishment in our lives. It opens the door to an intimate, moving account of life with an ‘invisible’ disability — one that isn’t always immediately obvious. Finally, the film serves as a striking cautionary tale about the tragedy that misdiagnosis can cause, and a dramatic portrait of women whom society rejected as mothers but who never stopped being mothers to their children.