Bruno Bettleheim’s theory of “Refrigerator Mom” to explain Autism


Bruno Bettleheim is known as the originator of the concept of “refrigerator moms” that explained autism through the mechanism of blaming of women for their child’s condition. The theory though wasn’t entirely new; the idea that autism was caused by a lack on input and neglect by mothers had been first postulated by Leo Kanner in a 1949 paper — attributing autism to a “genuine lack of maternal warmth.”

Bruno Bettleheim though, through a series of articles throughout the 1950s and 1960s populised the theory, at a time when the incidence of autism was beginning to be diagnosed more regularly. Not everyone was willing to accept the concept that the condition was the fault of women, most notably Bernard Rimland, a psychologist with an autistic son, and founder in 1967 of the Autism Research Institute (ARI) and the Autism Society of America. He also wrote Infantile Autism: The Syndrome and Its Implications for a Neural Theory of Behavior (1964). Rimland managed to even persuade Kanner, through the quality of his research and writing, that there was a neurological explanation for autism, and Kanner in response wrote the forward to his book.

Comparing MSBP and The Refrigerator Mom theories

The relationship between the Refrigerator Mom theory and MSBP/FII theory isn’t necessarily clear-cut across the world. In the US autism support groups have banished Bettelheims theory to the scientific gutter, and it is nigh impossible to employ a false or spurious MSBP allegation against the mother of an autistic child without risking the wrath of an expensive civil action. In England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland though, where the use of MSBP/FII has reached such common usage against women it is often considered as the first diagnosis rather than the last final explanation of a child’s condition, enabling the employment of blame against women for autism to be thriving like never before.

Bettelheim simply expressed his conviction that autism disorders were caused by women failing in their duty to provide emotional support for their children, leaving the children bereft of communication skills and an inability to socialize. MSBP/FII though steps beyond the bounds of Bettelheim’s theory with a huge leap; now instead of being simply accused of being remiss or somehow lacking in the emotional suite required by young children, women are now (and have been for over a decade) accused of being devious, vindictive schemers who deliberately inflict ASD or ASD-like conditions upon their children, and then have the temerity to demand assistance and support services for their children. In this regard MSBP/FII isn’t the Refrigerator Mom theory by any other name – Bettelheims writings never suggested any deliberate intent. MSBP/FII though retains the concept that AS Disorders are caused by women, but this time with deliberate intent.

Sir Roy Meadow’s theory of MSBP, published in the The Lancet just 10 years after in 1977 proved to be a lifeline for those who believed in Bettelheim’s theory. Although initially given little credence, MSBP, from the 1990s onwards, was employed to blame autism, or symptoms that appeared like an Autistic Spectrum Disorder-on women. In the intervening years it has became a de rigor exercise for many child protection professionals to employ a ‘standard’ MSBP allegation against a woman with an ASD child.

Using the concept that the mother or female carer (the MSBP theory rarely applies to male suspects) caused the child’s autism, or symptoms that ostensibly appear as an ASD, MSBP goes far further than the misogynist dreams of even the most ardent “Refrigerator Mom” Theory advocate. Rather than having to prove a failure to emotionally connect with an infant, because the woman is “emotionally frigid,” child protection professionals employing MSBP/FII have taken Bettelheim’s theory and run with it into a zone where the woman actually deliberately causes the child’s autistic spectrum disorder through deliberate intent, or has inflicted symptoms on a child that “look similar” to an ASD. Furthermore the woman is able to perform this feat using a process as yet undetermined by science or medical or criminal forensic science. Although some court-appointed experts believe that ASD-like symptoms can be inflicted deliberately on a child by a woman with MSBP, the means to actually perform this aren’t divulged. Presumably the absence of sensory and emotional input from a very early point in the infants life — i.e. “Refrigerator Mom” activities (or lack of rather) would suffice to explain how a “Munchausens Mother” would actually cause a child to be autistic or to produce a outwardly not-very-convincing approximation of an ASD.

Through its employment in the secret family court system, the use of the MSBP theory had a perfect vehicle in which to thrive. For those child protection experts and professionals inclined to seeing children forcibly removed from parents, either for financial gain or to satisfy dogma (or both) then MSBP has proven to be a god-send. Even better, through the restriction of the issuing of secretive family court judgements (see Paul Rowen MP and Rt. Hon. John Hemming MP) there is little danger that the testimony of secretive family court-appointed experts would ever be challenged by opposing experts, as their testimony would never see the light of day through an Appeal Court judgement one way or the other.

The abuse of AS Disorder children and women with ASD children is perhaps the most unreported medical scandal of the last fifty years. The abuse of both the children and families by medical and social work professionals continues to this present day, almost unabated. The political element in the seemingly official encouragement of the use of MSBP/FII allegation against women with AS Disorder children will probably, in the years to come dominate discussions about social care policies internationally. As more children taken forcibly from families and mothers reach the age of 18, and more women find that the secretive court gagging orders have expired; allowing them to speak freely.

(this post was composed using information from this website)

Bernard Rimland, Autism Pioneer 1928-2006

Bernard Rimland, Ph.D., a visionary autism research pioneer and the man most responsible for debunking the “refrigerator Mom” theory of autism, died Nov. 21, 2006 in San Diego at the age of 78. A California psychologist and father of a child diagnosed with autism at age two, Dr. Rimland wrote his landmark book “Infantile Autism: The Syndrome and Its Implications for a Neural Theory of Behavior” in 1964.

Rejecting the theories promoted by psychiatrist Leo Kanner and psychoanalyst Bruno Bettleheim, Dr. Rimland argued for a biological, specifically a neurological, basis for autistic behavior. He documented the similarities between brain injured children and autistic children, liberating parents from the destructive guilt associated with having an autistic child and pointing autism research in the direction it should always have taken: investigation into the biological mechanisms underlying brain and immune system dysfunction.

Recommended Reading:

  • No, Parents Don’t Cause Autism – Though They Can Often Help to Treat It
  • Dehumanizing Motherhood (Anonymums’s Blog) In dramas about custody cases, little appreciation is attributed to her endearing sacrifice to her body, livelihood and well-being to give the child life.  Her contributions to humanity is reduced to nothing but a childish tug of war.  Truth be told, that it was never a fight between two equals, but an opposing battle between david and goliath as the struggle of equality for women to be equal to men was not yet won, let alone the rights of mothers who were well behind the status of women.
  • Movie:I Am Sam DVD, New Line, 2002 ISBN: B000066HAS
    Michelle Pfeiffer and Sean Penn give career-defining performances in this humorous and heart-warming film about a mentally-challenged father who enlists the aid of a high-powered attorney to help him regain custody of his daughter. An all-star supporting cast and a spectacular soundtrack complete this unforgettable story of life, love and laughter.
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