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Duke Research - Tigers and helicopters and refrigerators, oh mom!

history of autism graphic

February 9, 2011

Tigers and helicopters and refrigerators, oh mom!

Mothers can be tigers, helicopters or soccer moms. But no stereotype was perhaps ever as biting as “refrigerator mom”.

Beginning in the 1950’s, psychoanalysts blamed these mothers for their children's autistic and schizophrenic behavior, including rigid rituals, speech difficulty and self-isolation. Duke pediatrician and historian Jeffrey Baker reviewed the sad history of this belief at a Sociology-Psychology brown bag seminar on Feb. 8.

Psychiatrist Leo Kanner first described  autism in 1943 and suspected a neurological origin. Yet, nearly all of the parents, particularly the fathers, of the eleven autistic children he saw were highly intelligent, self-absorbed in their careers and emotionally aloof. They kept their children “neatly in a refrigerator that did not defrost,” he wrote in 1949.

Kanner focused specifically on his patients’ fathers. But Bruno Bettelheim, one of the greater “villains” in this history of autism, found the greatest fault with patients' mothers. 

Bettelheim shaped this “refrigerator mother paradigm” through his popular articles, like “Joey: A 'Mechanical Boy,” which appeared in Scientific American, and books, like The Empty Fortress. The theoretical psychoanalyst blamed mothers' subconscious neglect for the children's autism, and he refused to let others review his work.

He had no systematic way of tracking his patients’ progress, and he found ways of making anomalous data fit within the refrigerator mother framework, which became persuasive to so many people, Baker said.

The mothers were finally vindicated in the late seventies and early eighties, but this story perfectly illustrates an erroneous scientific paradigm and is an example of what scientists should watch for in their current research, he said.


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Tags: behavior/psychology, faculty, lecture, medicine, neuroscience, science communication&education


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