By the time my son Timothy was three years old, we knew something was wrong. He never spoke and was extremely isolated. He engaged in several types of perseverative activities, had terrible sleep habits and absolutely no social behaviors. In hindsight, its easy to see how these behaviors would lead one to think of autism, but back then, I didn’t have an explanation, I just knew something was wrong.
When I took Timothy to the doctor, the pediatrician told me that the only thing wrong with my son was me. That I was overbearing and overanxious, that if I got off my son’s back, he would be just fine. Several months later he was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and we began a journey to try to save him. I conducted intensive research, reading every book I could find. One of the books was Bruno Bettelheim’s Empty Fortress, which discussed the mother’s role in causing autism. It’s an old book, it was published in 1967, but it’s still on library shelves. That was my first introduction to the “refrigerator mother” generation, the theory that poor mothering could cause autism in children.
At that time I was going through a real grieving process. I had lost my son to this disorder and I didn’t know why. I felt terribly guilty. Was it the glass of wine I drank when I was eight months pregnant? Was it something I did? I began to wonder what it must have been like for those women who were labeled refrigerator mothers. How difficult it must have been to not only experience your own feelings of guilt but then to be told by the professional community, the medical establishment, that yes indeed you did cause this, you are at fault … to be abandoned by friends, to have your own family turn its back on you because everybody thought you were causing this terrible disorder. I wanted to hear from these mothers. I didn't know anything about them, but I wanted to hear their stories.
As we found therapies that could help Timothy and he began to improve, I started the process of making this film to honor the generation of women before me who survived autism and raised their children without the support and understanding that my family and my son have received, support that in essence has saved his life. This film is a testament to the strength and devotion of these mothers who were ostracized, shunned by their communities and forced to face their child’s disorder alone.— J.J. Hanley