Raising an autistic child
Comments 26

Beyond Arrogance and Ignorance: The Evil Thinking That Birthed “The Refrigerator Mother”

Currently my tour of books on social history has lead me to The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan. I wanted to share specifically what I read this morning about “autism.” (In quotes as it was in the book.)

As the mother of an autistic child, it was particularly interesting for me to read the thinking from 1963, two years before my birth. I have frequently heard mention of how it was once thought autism was the result of The Refrigerator Mother but never have I read such a gross account of just what that perception meant and the impact and prejudice I can easlly imagine resulted in such thinking.

When I read the following passages I was struck by their harshness, yes, their brutality. It states quite clearly that the autistic child is dehumanized, but what I read also was how the mothers, how women, without so much of a thought to them, were dehumanized in the research and by the thinking of the day.

From, The Feminine Mystique, Chapter 12, Progressive Dehumanization: The Comfortable Concentration Camp, pp. 413-416

At its most extreme, this pattern of progressive dehumanization can be seen in the cases of schizophrenic children: “autistic” or “atypical” children, as they are sometimes called. I visited a famous clinic which has been studying these children for almost twenty years. During this period, cases of these children, arrested at a very primitive, sub-infantile level, have seemed to some to be on the increase. The authorities differ as to the cause of this strange condition, and whether it is actually on the increase or only seems to be because it is now more often diagnosed. Until quite recently, most of these children were thought to be mentally retarded. But the condition is being seen more frequently now, in hospitals and clinics, by doctors and psychiatrists. And it is not the same as the irreversible, organic types of mental retardation. It can be treated, and sometimes cured.

These children often identify themselves with things, inanimate objects – cars, radios, etc., or with animals – pigs, dogs, cats. The crux of the problem seems to be that these children have not organized or developed strong enough selves to cope even with the child’s reality; they cannot distinguish themselves as separate from the outside world; they live on the level of things or of instinctual biological impulse that has not been organized into a human framework at all. As for causes, the authorities felt they “must examine the personality of the mother, who is the medium through which the primitive infant transforms himself into a socialized human being.” 13

At a clinic I visited (The James Jackson Putnam Children’s Center in Boston) the workers were cautious about drawing conclusions about these profoundly disturbed children. But one of the doctors said, a bit impatiently, about the increasing stream of “missing egos, fragile egos, poorly developed selves” that he has encountered – “It’s just the thing we’ve always known, if the parent has a fragile ego, the child will.”

Most of the mothers of the children who never developed a core of human self were “extremely immature individuals” themselves, though on the surface they “give the impression of being well-adjusted.” They were very dependent on their own mothers, fled this dependency into early marriage, and “have struggled heroically to build and maintain the image they have created of a fine woman, wife and mother.”

The need to be a mother, the hope and expectation that through this experience she may become a real person, capable of true emotions, is so desperate that of itself it may create anxiety, ambivalence, fear of failure. Because she is so barren of spontaneous manifestations of maternal feelings, she studies vigilantly all the new methods of upbringing and reads treatises about physical and mental hygiene.” 14

Her omnipresent care of her child is based not on spontaneity but on following the “picture of what a good mother should be,” in the hope that “through identification with the child, her own flesh and blood, she may experience vicariously the joys of real living, of genuine feeling.”

And thus, the child is reduced to “passive inertia” to “screaming in the night” to non-humanness. “This passive child is less of a threat because he does not make exaggerated demands on the mother, who feels constantly in danger of revealing that emotionally she has little or nothing to offer, that she is a fraud.” When she discovers that she cannot really find her own fulfillment through the child:

…she fights desperately for control, no longer of herself perhaps, but of the child. The struggles over toilet training and weaning are generally battles in which she tries to redeem herself. The child becomes the real victim – victim of the mother’s helplessness, which, in turns, creates an aggression in her that mounts to destruction. The only way for the child to survive is to retreat, to withdraw, not only from the dangerous mother, but from the whole world as well.” 15

And so he becomes a “thing,” or an animal, or “a restless wanderer in search of no one and no place, weaving about the room, swaying back and forth, circling walls as if they were bars he would break through.”

In this clinic, the doctors were often able to trace a similar pattern back several generations. The dehumanization was indeed progressive.

In view of these clinical observations, we may assume that the conflict we discovered in two generations may well have existed for generations before and will continue in those to come, unless the pattern is interrupted by therapeutic intervention or the child is rescued by a masculine father-figure, a hope which our experience would not lead us to expect.” 16


13. Beata Rank, “Adaptation of the Psychoanalytical Technique for the Treatment of Young Children with Atypical Development,” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, XIX, 1, januarly, 1949.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid.

16. Beata Rank, Marian C. Putnam, and Gregory Rochlin, M.D., “The Significance of the ‘Emotional Climate’ in Early Feeding Difficulties,” Psychosomatic Medicine, X, 5, October, 1948.

Image from Heroes: Refrigerator Mothers and Autism. Watch it. It’s worth four minutes.


    • Thank you. Yes, the awareness just from reading these pages has brought about a change in me. I had always heard of Refrigerator Mother but until now they were words that I only attached a vague meaning to. No longer is that meaning vague. It is bold and stunning and off to Amazon I go to find more books about the subject. Thanks for reading and for being aware as well. Let our numbers grow! :-)

  1. This is the first time I’ve commented without reading the whole thing. I have to pause before I read the book excerpt and take some deep breaths…not sure I want to know. What I DO know is my mother had this book in her extensive book collection, with pride as a post-40’s/50’s/60’s feminist. I also know how she broke off her lifelong friendship with a treasured family friend after our child with DS was born and the friend told her, “You know, they have institutions for babies like that…”

    In through the nose, out through the mouth…here I go…

    • Oh SSM, I hope you made it through the read okay. It’s gross. It really is. But it appears to be what was and although we shouldn’t get lost in what was, we should know what was for the macro picture it brings us. I think we are wiser and think our perspective broadens when we see where we were and where we are now. Yes, “You know, they have institutions for babies like that…” was indeed a prevalent attitude and when I read what informed people of that attitude (the kind of stuff that is in this post) I somewhat understand. That said, it doesn’t mean I excuse it. I simply understand its origin better. We all must evolve in our thinking and progress with the times.I am so glad we can shake our heads now in disbelief. There are many parts of The Feminine Mystique that intrigue me and I can see Friedan’s points, some parts, like what I read this morning, equating staying at home to being in a German concentration camp, well, I was shaking my head at what to me, seemed to be extreme hyperbole.

      • Well said. The evolution of conceptualization of things as they are demands that we step outside our compulsive habit of categorization. This is what I love about having a special needs child! And you captured it so well…

      • Thank you. You understand, don’t you. Ted has taught me to step outside myself and step away from preconceived notions just as your child has taught you. To learn to do so is a priceless lesson and can be applied throughout life. Because of Ted and his “different” trajectory I say and mean it, to the core of my being, “There is more than one way to okay.” :-)

  2. Wow. It kind of makes you think – which of our mainstream attitudes will be challenged by later generations? My heart aches for those mothers. I might be a little slow, but why “refrigerator”?

    • I hope any mainstream theories we have now, and I hope there aren’t many, that degrades one group to favor another group is automatically and completely debunked. The arrogance of researchers, in their attempts to promote their theories, and thus their careers, by subjugating (and I am being nice with that choice of word) a group of people is bad science and deplorable. In addition to do so with no evidence, only conjecture adds insult to injury. I seriously hope we have better standards today. Seriously…

    • p.s. The moms were called refrigerator mothers because they supposedly were frigid and uncaring. They were thought to be completely incapable of both having and showing emotion to their children.

  3. chels744 says

    And I used to be jealous of those who got to experience the awesome 60’s music firsthand :(

    Even in the ’90s and early 2000s, attitudes about autism were still pretty fucked up. I will tell you from my pre-teen experience before knowing about neurodiversity. Things did not start to turn around until 2006, when self-advocacy started to become a thing for us, and parents had reliable resources aside from Temple Grandin.

    • Ah you make an interesting point. When you wrote about the awesome 60’s music, the stuff I grew up on, I connected it to the uptightness of the 50’s and early 60’s, the uptightness the led to Refrigerator Moms kind of thinking and can totally understand why Elvis shaking his hips was such a big deal. The breaking out of uptightness. Then bring on the British Invasion of rock and well, we all know what happened. That uptightness crumbled and the pendulum swung the other way. Gotta love history and the perspective it can bring. I feel sort of fortunate that my son was diagnosed with Asperger’s in 1995. We were years away from blaming mom so we didn’t get that nonsense, and yes, we didn’t have much on the internet, but there were fewer distractions, less noise if you know what I mean. We were able to focus on what was right in front of us. What my son’s needs were at the moment. One of the biggest issues we had was trying to get his teachers and only some, not all, to just be more flexible. When they were flexible, when they were compassionate, life was good and Teddy for the most part managed. When the teachers were rigid, oh it was intolerable. But the more I think about it, the longer I spend with autism and watching my son, who is now days away from 22, I have come to the point where I think the key, the crux of humans getting along with humans, is compassion. When we apply compassion to our relationships, disability, color, religion, sexual orientation, history, whatever, well they just sort of blur away and what we have before us is an individual, a person with a heart and a soul and a brain – someone who has needs just like us and if we can just see the humanness, the sameness in the person we are interacting with, if we can see them and treat them with respect and kindness and compassion, if we could treat them the way we like to be treated then, well, wouldn’t the necessary adjustments just be made organically, as part of the interaction. When I get into a car with an automatic transmission, I drive one way. When I get into a car with a manual transmission I drive another way. Both cars drive, they just drive a little differently. Why overthink the differences, just make the adjustments, drive and enjoy the trip. That’s how I like to see it.

      • chels744 says

        I was diagnosed in 1996, and yes, my mother was very fortunate not to be accused of refrigerator BS. I got late intervention which apparently helped a lot, too. The refrigerator theory was quickly replaced with the vaccine theory and new hopes to find cures, while Jim Sinclair and Donna Williams were in the backseats of conferences planting the seeds for the neurodiversity movement. Before taking part in it, even well-meaning people insisted that I stop flapping my hands or having any kinds of obsessions that made me stand out in front of my peers. A lot of the thanks goes to curebie professionals like Bryna Siegel, Michelle Garcia Winner, and many of those at the UCD Mind institute.

        Now at around the same age as your son, I can recognize ableist bullshit when I see it, and I have no problem calling it out. That is what self-advocacy is for, to challenge conventional ideas that hurt autistics and their parents.

      • Being a self-advocate is a very good thing and a skill we all must develop for there always have been and probably always will be a group that wants to exert its power, whether real or perceived, over other groups. Sadly that seems to be human nature. :-)

  4. Read this a bit late because I knew i’d have to read it at my pace. Reading it I’ve realized that how much far we still have to go here, in India. Here the people still have very regressive ideas about autism, or even problems like dyslexia and club them all as mental problems and such. And this is in cities where people are supposedly educated. you can not imagine the condition in the rural areas. I shudder to imagine.

    • I shudder too. Sorry for my delay in responding. Focused on Meg and her final weeks at home and then took her off to college and my husband and I went on vacation – just the two of us! :-) Not quite back to normal routines and WordPress yet but wanted to write you and thank you for your comment. I can’t imagine treating someone, or even thinking of them as “less than” because of a physical or mental impairment. They just are as they are and I hope one day we can evolve to the point were we see people as equal. Now the choices that people make, those may not all be of equal quality but that’s another discussion. But people, as people, regardless of their outward form, we should all recognize their equality. One day, maybe….

  5. First, I miss you! But I expect you’re savoring these late summer days with your daughter, and even now may be taking her off to settle into school. And thinking, in the back of your mind, about the days ahead and how you’ll adapt.
    Second, I realize I hadn’t commented on this. Having grown up without feminism, at least until I was in my early 20’s, the mind set described above is very familiar. The doctor describes one avenue that was accepted for women in the 50’s & early 60’s to find meaning and self worth: having and raising children. So no wonder a frail ego is perpetuated through generations SOMETIMES, when there are other problems present. That of course doesn’t excuse the taint of deep prejudice apparent in the attitudes of so many professionals. But not to throw out the baby with the bathwater, I think examining the relationship with mother is important and worthwhile in treating mental illness. But let’s attempt to do it without prejudice, without blame – what’s the use of that? Are you trying to improve the life of the child? Then don’t go tearing apart the life of the child’s mother by assigning blame. As for rescue with a masculine father figure, that’s contingent on the absence of the same scars that pervasive sexism placed on mother. Good luck with that. And far better that BOTH parents would be free of sexism and able to express themselves freely without needing to live through their children. Yes, it’s hard to imagine what a mother of an autistic child would have gone through back then.
    Also, it’s hard from the brief description of the children to know whether they were seeing early schizophrenia, which typically doesn’t show up until later, or autism, or a severe attachment disorder, or, or, or. And what was meant by schizophrenic children or autism in 1963 is probably different from what is meant by those terms (if you even hear of schizophrenic children) now. But in any case, the lack of understanding compounded by sexism on a deep level, must have destroyed lives.
    This also brings up the fact that we understand the brain so much better now, and are beginning to understand biology/environment interactions better. They didn’t have as much to go on then. Again, no excuse for pure prejudice – it’s mind boggling when you read some of this stuff!

    • First, you are absolutely right. Meg has been my focus. It isn’t very often in life when you are aware, and even have the date, of a major transition, a life changing transition, and this has been one of those times. I knew, August 18 was the day my baby, my youngest was going to school and even though she would be back, she would be back as a visitor, that she, and I would have changed, even slightly and I wanted to soak in, absorb to my core my last few weeks with her home, in her room, doing the things she has always done while I did the things I do, enjoying the known normal while it was still normal. Then, early on the 18th off to school we went. It was exciting. It was truly a joy of tremendous magnitude to help her get established in this next chapter of her life. And it was bittersweet. She is were she needs to be. Where I raised her to be. And I am too. After we left her, moved in and acquainted with her roommate, my husband and I left and went on a trip. Just the two of us. As we drove away, I felt the change happening in me. With each mile down the road, I felt an awakening, I felt this reassurance that I had immersed myself in the rearing of my children, that in these past 22 years I indeed did everything in my power to answer the awesome responsibility I took on when I decided to have children. And although I will continue to support her, to be there in times of joy and woe, I am aware of a new found freedom, a new normal. And that felt good. So now I am back. Rested after a nice time away with my husband and I have indulged myself in my fireplace construction project, working rather than reflecting, but as I work I feel this transition continuing and I am happy. I have also been quiet. Seeking very little from the outside world. In fact I have enjoyed two weeks off work, away from what others refer to as life. But this quiet time, this time focused on a passage in life has been golden. It has been a celebration. I miss Meg but I wouldn’t want her to be anywhere but where she is right now. And I have built until 11 p.m. when normally she would be in bed and I listen to NPR early in the morning when normally the house is quiet so she can sleep. I am indeed A WILD WOMAN! :-) Thank you for writing. Thank you for being here. Thank you for saying you miss me. Really. I appreciate such kind words, and to think my break has been noticed is a significant gesture and warms my heart.

      And speaking of a warm heart…

      Thank you also for your comments about the refrigerator mother. It was truly a lesson for me to read the research and to get a glimpse of the attitudes from the past. Yes, we have progressed and yes we have a long way to go as the brain is sort of the final frontier. We don’t know what causes autism and that not knowing has caused many people to go down the grief road. I guess I never really wondered why Ted had autism. One look at our family tree and the genetic connection convinced me. Besides, I never really cared why he had it, he did, that was him, so let’s make the most of it was my attitude. I just wish we approached more of what we don’t know with a positive, supportive attitude rather than one of blame. I don’t know how blame helps. Building up everyone in a situation seems the answer to me. Educate, empower, embrace all involved seems a much better equation to success.

      I’ll be back soon Lynn. Heck, this response is pretty much a post all in itself! :-)

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