Gareth D Morewood blogged here for two years, 2008-2010. Gareth’s first eBook, The Role of the SENCO: An Insider’s Guide, is now available from the Optimus Education shop.

This week I went to a well-attended, high-profile training course on autism. During the course I saw some fascinating old television footage of so-called ‘experts’ sharing their ideas and theories regarding autism. What caught my attention most was the term ‘refrigerator mothers’, which apparently was coined in 1950 to describe some mothers of autistic children.

The term originates from a theory that autism may be related to a ‘genuine lack of maternal warmth’, which was published in 1949 by Leo Kanner when he was starting to investigate causes of autistic behaviour.

It was Dr Bruno Bettelheim, a University of Chicago professor and child development specialist, who facilitated the widespread acceptance of this notion in the 1950s and 1960s. Many articles and books published in that era attributed autism to a maternal lack of affection.

I can understand how Kanner and Bettelheim came to the initial conclusions that autism was developmental in relation to the mother, bearing in mind Bowlby’s identification of Attachment Disorder, but I find it indefensible that these cases were paraded so publicly, especially when there were so few examples. The idea of ‘refrigerator mothers’ was widely spread with no real explanation or context, and subsequently turned these women into social outcasts.

I am curious to look further into this early misdiagnosis from Kanner and Bettelheim; specifically how it affected notions of who people with autism were and what they presented at that point in time.

Often errors help to frame modern thinking. However, can we truly accept Bettelheim’s work as a core part of developmental theories about autism?

Find out more about the controversy of Bettelheim’s theory.