The Sentence That Changed My Life

It’s hard to fathom, but there was a day when autism was attributed to mothers who were “cold” and unaffectionate to their children.  It was a prevailing theory in the 1950s and 1960’s and, at the time, mothers were referred to as “refrigerator mothers”.  It was the theory that attributed blame to the mother.  That blame game was still playing in 1997 when it hit me right between the eyes.

I was forced to learn all about “refrigerator mothers” and the history of the phrase when these words  were written by an educator questioning my motives upon referring my son to special education.  I was not meant to see the note…. but I did.

My son was not yet three and he was receiving early intervention services.  When his early intervention team made the referral to special education in my school district, the incidence of autism was negligible.  No one was talking about autism because the incidence was so low.  So when my son showed up on the district’s doorstep with the diagnosis of autism, all be it more than forty years after the “refrigerator mother” theory began, the theory was still alive.

I had first come across the phrase “refrigerator mother” when I learned that my son was diagnosed with autism.  He was two.  Let’s put it this way, it was 1996 and I didn’t own a computer and this thing called the “internet” was just starting.  I remember telling my husband that I wanted to get a computer and he said, “Let’s see if this internet thing takes off before we invest in one.”  Anyway, when my son was diagnosed with autism I had vaguely heard of the word “autism.”   I headed down to my town library and looked it up in an old set of encyclopedias, which was the only set they had. That’s when I learned about Leo Kanner, who first identified autism in 1943.  Kanner noted that many parents, especially mothers, were “cold” and unaffectionate to their children with autism. Although Kanner coined the “refrigerator mother” theory, it was Bruno Bettelheim, a child development specialist, who facilitated its widespread acceptance in the 1950s and 1960s. The encyclopedia entry also said my son would have to be institutionalized.  I cried for weeks.

So when I read the words, “what if this child does not have autism and the mother is seeking attention,” it was clear that this educator suspected that I might be to blame.  You can imagine my shock and, quite frankly, anger!   Then I remembered the old encyclopedia and the “refrigerator mother” syndrome.  This theory started a mindset of blaming the mother.

Looking back, I suppose that archaic theory for autism, which still permeated people’s thoughts, was the impetus for me to become the advocate that I am today.  I hold no grudge as, in retrospect, I realize that the theory had powerful roots that fortunately have been debunked.  However, those words lit a fire in my soul I have never been able to extinguish.   By the way, we did get one of the computer things and that internet really took off.

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