Autism and Refrigerator Mothers

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The Refrigerator Mother Theory

The refrigerator mother theory was proposed as an explanation for why some children acquire autism while others do not. According to this hypothesis, autism is caused by a child not receiving maternal warmth throughout his or her early years of development. The word was coined in 1950 to describe a mother whose child had been diagnosed with autism. According to Leo Kanner, his first autism diagnosis was made among youngsters whose parents were cold to them. This was directly attributed to the moms, who were responsible for a significant chunk of the child's growth (Pearce, 2016).

Bettelheim's Views on Autism

In his book "The Empty Fortress: Infantile Autism and the Birth of the Self," Bettelheim gives an explanation of what an autistic child experiences. Bettelheim was a war prisoner in a concentration camp. In his views, unlike the prisoner, an autistic child does not have a previous experience of personality, so he is unable to make a difference between the two. On one hand, Bettelheim’s view is correct. The lack of maternal warmth can develop a problem in an infant, and this may be carried into early childhood. It creates a psychotic disturbance that can never be reversed. The early stages of a child’s development are highly dependent on the presence of an individual who cares, preferably a maternal figure who is able to comfort and attend to the needs of the infant. Extreme cases of these psychotic disturbances do not necessarily mean that no one cared for the child, but that the individual doing it was not fully committed to the task at hand. He added that autistic children viewed their caregivers as prison wardens; their autistic condition was the prison and their parents want them to be dead. These children can feel the negative emotions coming from their caregiver; the feelings of hopelessness and fear, which causes them to go further into this autistic condition (De Rubeis et al, 2014).

Refrigerator Mothers and Genetic Causes

On the other hand, the refrigerator mothers’ theory places prejudice on the mothers and making them responsible for their children’s autistic condition. Recent studies have pointed out that autism is often the result of genetic mutation (De Rubeis, Goldberg, Poultney, Samocha, Cicek, & Singh, 2014). Autism manifests itself in various ways ranging from the inability to express oneself to a complete withdrawal from the immediate surroundings. Other factors that are responsible for causing autism could be the environment. Bettelheim’s views of refrigerator mothers as the cause of autism are therefore false. There are instances in which a child may inherit genes that are more susceptible to autism, which then manifests itself from the age of ten months. In addition, certain environment triggers could trigger autism, the major one being premature birth or being exposed to medications during pregnancy (Morgan, 2016).

Therapy and Parenting for Autistic Children

Bettelheim’s views about autism in children give an insight into how a therapist could help a parent understand how to handle an autistic child. Attachment disorders are developed when the fundamental social relationships are not enforced during infancy. This disorder results from the primary caregivers not forming a relationship with the infant. In response, the infant feels neglect and separation from the caregiver. In some instances, the infant’s mother may die at childbirth, but this does not mean that the child should grow up without a caregiver. The role of the caregiver is to be an anchor for the child. It is from this that the child learns to respond to sound and touch (Mayes, Calhoun, Waschbusch, & Baweja, 2016).

Mothers of Autistic Children

Furthermore, Bettelheim’s theory of refrigerator mothers helps in understanding what mothers with autistic children go through. Some of the autistic children have an aversion to being touched. Their mothers are encouraged to express the affection in other ways because touching only pushes the child further away. Eventually, it is better to have a child who responds positively to sound rather than one who avoids all the primary caregivers.


De Rubeis, S., He, X., Goldberg, A. P., Poultney, C. S., Samocha, K., Cicek, A. E., ... & Singh, T. (2014). Synaptic, transcriptional and chromatin genes disrupted in autism. Nature, 515(7526), 209-215.

Mayes, S. D., Calhoun, S. L., Waschbusch, D. A., & Baweja, R. (2016). Autism and reactive attachment/disinhibited social engagement disorders: Co-occurrence and differentiation. Clinical child psychology and psychiatry, 1359104516678039.

Morgan, J. (2016). Autism spectrum disorder: difference or disability? The Lancet Neurology, 15(11), 1126.

Pearce, C. (2016). A short introduction to attachment and attachment disorder. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

April 19, 2023

Science Family


Scientific Method Illness

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Theory Autism Children

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Expertise Children
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