Autism Spectrum Disorders

The Evolution of Autism – Part III: The Revolt against the Refrigerator Mom

As a result of Bruno Bettleheim’s work, mothers found themselves under the microscope when they sought help for their children. Many blamed themselves while others protested. One father, in particular, Dr. Bernard Rimland, was so against the allegation, that autism was caused by the parents, by the professional community that he began a five-year journey to figure out the underlying causes of autism. Dr. Rimland provided the most important contributions to the field of autism by supplying much-needed guidance on how best to understand and treat individuals with autism.

Having recently completed a doctoral degree in experimental psychology, Dr. Rimland delved into the scientific literature and learned that he was not the only parent who wanted to learn as much as possible about the diagnosis. Fueled by his disdain of the ‘refrigerator mother’ theory, Dr. Rimland converted his side porch into an office and began writing a critical review on the current approach to autism.  His draft grew so thick that his wife suggested he write a book instead. In 1964, Infantile Autism: The Syndrome and Its Implication for a Neural Theory of Behavior was published immediately impressing reviewers, gaining nominations and awards in the field of psychology. His book addressed diagnosis, cognition and a possible neurological site of damage. Most noteworthy is that this book laid out the argument for a biological cause for autism. He provided clear and concise logic leading many professionals to change their views on autism (from the parents causing it to it being a biological disorder).  

imageHe even got Dr. Leo Kanner, the first to cite parental coldness as the cause of autism, to change his perspective. Not only did Dr. Kanner write the foreword for Dr. Rimland’s book, but he also apologized to parents for implying that they were responsible for their children’s autism officially ‘acquitting them as parents’. (Stark comparison to his quote in a 1960 Time Magazine interview where he described mothers of autistic children as “just happening to defrost enough to produce a child”.)

While writing his book, Dr. Rimland felt that a checklist was needed to help parents determine whether or not their child might have autism. He included ‘Diagnostic Checklist for Behavior-Disturbed Children (Form E-1)‘ consisting of 76 questions about the child’s birth history, speech patterns, and symptom development. To his surprise, many parents ripped Form E-1 from the book, completed the checklist and mailed the pages back to him, asking for suggestions on how to best help their child. 

Though Dr. Rimland wanted to provide help to other parents, he knew that it was too big a task for him to complete on his own. With the help of parents and other medical professionals, he went on to establish the Autism Society of America, in 1965, to help distribute information to families. Two years later, in 1967, Dr. Rimland opens the Autism Research Institute as an unbiased organization to conduct research studies on autism spectrum disorders.

Dr. Rimland dedicated nearly fifty years of his life to helping those on the spectrum and their families. Due to his efforts, he has helped shape a better future for everyone affected by autism.

  • Bernard Rimland, Ph.D. 1928 – 2006. (credit: Hall of Fame)
  • refrigeratormother.jpg (2010). 
  • Autism Society History. Autism Advocate, Fall/Winter 2011.
  • Edelson PhD, Stephen. “Infantile Autism”: 50 Years Later. Autism Research Review International, 2014, 28(1), pp. 3, 7.

Since completing my undergraduate studies, I've dedicated my time to supporting and empowering individuals with behavioral health issues. This blog is to be a platform for the behavioral health community; examining the history of behavioral health and the progressions made within the field while providing information and resources to those who need it.

1 comment on “The Evolution of Autism – Part III: The Revolt against the Refrigerator Mom

  1. Pingback: The Evolution of Autism – Part II: Refrigerator Mother – h e a l t h f u l m i n d

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