Monday, October 5, 2009

Essay About the Documentary Refrigerator Mothers

Sometimes I get overwhelmed by the amount of controversy that surrounds the topic of autism--especially when it comes to the vaccine issue. Nonetheless, I'd choose raising a child with autism in this age of information over any other previous era, especially the 1950s and 1960s. This was the time when mothers desperate to find help for their children were blamed for their child's diagnosis of autism.

Back then any mom with a child with autism was at risk for being called a "Refrigerator Mom." According to the popular thought of the day, "Refrigerator Moms" were cold mothers who caused the child's autism by not being able to bond with them. The treatmentback then included taking the children away from their parents and/or isolating them from everything including toys. Ugh. Did I already say I'm glad I became a mom of an autistic child diagnosed in this century?

The chief proponent of the refrigerator mom theory was Bruno Bettleheim. He wrote The Empty Fortress: Infantile Autism and the Birth of the Self, which I suspect would be a painful read for most parents. The scary thing is that (at the time) the world embraced Bettleheim as the expert on the topic of autism in children. This is the quote in the documetary that gave me the chills:

"[Bettleheim said] mothers were responsible for making children autistic and the world fell for it."

Fortunately for moms who are currently seeking out help for children with ASD, the world has mostly moved on from that view. This is reflective in the documentary Refrigerator Mothers, released in 2003 by Kartemquin films for the PBS Point of View series. The director of Refrigerator Mothers let the mothers tell their own stories. Most of the moms in the film mentioned that they took their children to doctors hoping to find help. Instead they ended up getting a label thrust upon them. One even said, "instead of help, we got Bruno Bettleheim."

Another mom revealed that she still cannot get rid of that feeling of guilt that was placed upon her. This mother seemed to be doing Ok, but the sadness in her eyes made me wish that the Refrigerator Mother theory never came about. It made me sad and even a little angry that there are many, many mothers who had autistic children in that era who are still suffering as a result of having this label placed upon them.

However, I must say that despite the suffering, I couldn't help but admire all of the mothers in the film for their strength and courage. I'm glad these moms had a chance to tell their stories and I believe they were glad as well (maybe even relieved) to be able to tell them. If you haven't already watched the film, I'd highly recommend that you do.


Corrie Howe said...

Thanks for this post and the information. I'm glad to be born in this century too. Since I have two NT children, I couldn't have accepted the label. And even now when people say something about my parenting I can be confident that it's not me since I have NT on both sides of my Aspie.

Casdok said...

I heard the term alot when C was diagnosed. And the Empty Fortess was one of the first books i read as there werent many around in those days. (makes me feel old!)
So glad the world has move on as it couldnt be furthur from the truth.
Lets hope we move on from other controversy's too.

Marla said...

Such a terrible term. I am not sure things are that much better now. I know that I have been called "obsessed" by some of those close to me. So you are either cold or obsessed it seems. Sigh.

Morgan said...

I mentoned refrigerator mothers in my speech that I gave in September. I compared it to BPD where the parents used to be blamed because they were poor parents. Now people are realizing that BPD has some genetic and neurological components and that people with it don't respond to parenting styles that may work for others.

Caitlin (Buy Backlinks) said...

There were many many inaccurate diagnosis during that era. I can even remember that they advertise softdrinks to be good even to babies. And like you, I am glad to be a parent in this century. I don't have an experience with autism but there are still times that I feel guilty about how I bring up my child. How much more if he were autistic and people are putting the blame on me?