The term Refrigerator Mother was developed as a theory in the 1940s by an Austrian psychiatrist called Leo Kanner. His theory was then developed further a long discredited ‘doctor’ Bruno Bettelheim.

This theory, which was popularised by Bettelheim and had a lot of negative impact on families with autistic children, claimed that children were autistic because their mothers were emotionally unavailable to the child – cold, distant, unloving, incapable of providing the nurturing environment that a child needs in order to develop ‘normally’. It is this emotional coldness that connects with the concept of the refrigerator, in case that’s not obvious!

This terrible, damaging, ignorant theory caused devastation for so many mothers who were already struggling to find ways to interact with their autistic children, particularly those with learning disabilities. These mothers were essentially blamed as the cause of their child’s autism.

Here is a moving documentary on the effects of Refrigerator Mother Theory – you’ll find it in the Information section too.

What’s worth noting here is that, as a mother of an autistic child, or adult, you know better than anyone that showering your child with hugs and attention is often going to make matters worse, in the event of a public meltdown, for instance. To the uneducated observer, this can look like we don’t care and have no empathy.