Main content

Refrigerator Mothers

Refrigerator Mothers

From the 1950's through the 1970's, children with autism were widely thought to be victims of inadequate parenting. Influenced by Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, mental health and medical professionals claimed that autism was the product of mothers who were cold, distant, rejecting - unable to 'bond properly.' They were labeled 'refrigerator mothers.' Though this disastrous theory began to be seriously challenged in the mid-1960's, its effects lingered for decades. As recently as 1996, producer J.J. Hanley was told that her son's odd behaviors were the result of overanxious and overbearing mothering. Her family wasted many critical early intervention months before her son was finally diagnosed with autism.

In Refrigerator Mothers, seven women share their poignant stories. All but one were told by psychologists or physicians that they were to blame for their child's autism. The only exception, who is African-American, was told that her son could not be autistic because she did not fit the usual pattern: middle class, highly educated, and white. She was told, instead, that her son must be emotionally disturbed. Yet these courageous women refused to be crushed by the burden of blame. Today, they have strong, supportive relationships with their now adult sons and daughters and, in a variety of ways, have helped them to find their place in the world. Offering fascinating insights into the history of our understanding of mental illness and developmental disabilities, this fascinating and disturbing video raises questions that are of profound relevance today.

The video features historic broadcast interviews with Bettelheim himself, as well as excerpts from both Hollywood features and mental health 'training films' of the period.

Contemporary context is provided by psychiatrist and author Robert Coles, MD, of Harvard; by Richard Pollak, author of The Creation of Dr. B: A Biography of Bruno Bettelheim; and by research psychologist Bernard Rimland, PhD, whose 1964 book, Infantile Autism, challenged Bettelheim's 'bad mothering' thesis and argued for an understanding of autism as a biological disorder. Refrigerator Mothers was produced by Kartemquin Educational Films, and is a presentation of the Independent Television Service, with funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

'We are a society inspired by the frenetic search for answers to the mystery of human behavior. But our search must be tempered by humility and truth or we risk hurting the people we are supposed to help. What happened to these mothers offers powerful lessons for all of us.' - Robert Coles, MD, Harvard University

'Editor's choice. An outstanding, thought-provoking title that, while uncovering a sad chapter in medical history, also raises awareness of ethical issues surrounding medical research in a sensitive, empathetic manner, this is highly recommended.' - Video Librarian

'An incredibly moving video that illustrates the history of autism through the life experiences and poignant stories of seven pioneering women and their children. Anyone involved in the life of an individual with an autism spectrum disorder must see this video. Quite simply, remarkable!' - Dr. Cathy Pratt, Board of Directors, Autism Society of America

'Possesses high quality production values, and reflects intelligent sensitivity on the part of the filmmakers in delving into this remarkable and disturbing subject. The program is highly recommended for academic, health sciences, and public libraries.' - Educational Media Reviews

'This powerful documentary vividly illuminates the searing damage experienced by loving mothers of children with autism as a result of Bettleheim's cruel theory of maternal rejection. That these mothers prevailed, in the face of such a devastating accusation, speaks volumes about the power of maternal love. Every professional involved with children with autism and their families needs to heed the message of this documentary first do no harm. This haunting documentary takes us back to the darkest days for families of adults with autism and impressively illustrates the courage of these mothers to reject the theory of rejection, to reclaim their children, and to demand better science about the mystery of autism.' - Marty Krauss, John Stein Professor of Disability Research, Brandeis University

'Refrigerator Mothers is arguably the best documentary ever made on the subject of autism. It manages to inform, entertain, educate and move its audience emotionally. My students and I find ourselves talking about it weeks after we've viewed it. Refrigerator Mothers will transform your view of autism, parenthood, and the unique pressures brought to bear on families with special mental health needs.' - Rick Mayes, University of Richmond

'This compelling video presents a vivid portrayal of the dangers of medical misdiagnosis and unfounded scientific theories.' - Booklist


Main credits

Simpson, David E (Director)
Simpson, David E (Producer)
Simpson, David E (Film editor)
Hanley, J. J (Producer)
Quinn, Gordon (Producer)
Quinn, Gordon (Cinematographer)
Marcus, Hannah (mus)
Kimoto, Tsuyoshi (Cinematographer)

Other credits

Executive producer, co-producer, Gordon Quinn; music, Hannah Marcus; camera, Tsuyoshi Kimoto, Gordon Quinn.

Docuseek2 subjects

Distributor subjects

Brain Disorders
Disabilities and Parenting
Family Relations
Fanlight Collection
Healthcare History and Policy
Mental Illness
Parenting and Childbirth
Social Work


film; captioned video; documentary; autism; autistic; spectrum disorder; developmental disability; blame the mother; guilt; inadequate parenting; inadequate mothering; cold mothering; Bruno Bettelheim; rejecting mother; emotionally disturbed; autism spectrum disorder; psychology; psychological; psychiatry; psychiatric; mental health; mental illness; brain disorder; mind; behavior; therapy ; disorders ; ethics; ethical; moral; morality; social policy; social problems; social issues; family; families; parent; parents; parenting; children; disability; disabilities; disabled; crippled; handicap; handicapped; developmental disabilities; ; "Refrigerator Mothers"; The Fanlight Collection;

Related Films

Latest News from the Cosmos

It wasn't until Helene was 20 years old that her parents discovered that…

Autism: The Road Back

Charts the personal journey of three families with children who have been…

Autism: A World Apart

Three families show us what the textbooks and studies cannot show about…