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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.

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