A Video History of Autism: Bruno Bettelheim and Refrigerator Mothers
If Hans Asperger and Leo Kanner are the first heroes of autism history, Bruno Bettelheim is among its first villains. He was one of the most popular child psychologists from the 1960s to the 1980s, and his opinions about autism were especially influential and destructive.
But the term "refrigerator mother" actually comes from Kanner, and he created the theory that autism springs from a lack of parental affection:
In his 1943 paper that first identified autism, Leo Kanner called attention to what appeared to him as a lack of warmth among the fathers and mothers of autistic children In a 1949 paper, Kanner suggested autism may be related to a "genuine lack of maternal warmth", noted that fathers rarely stepped down to indulge in children's play, and observed that children were exposed from "the beginning to parental coldness, obsessiveness, and a mechanical type of attention to material needs only.... They were left neatly in refrigerators which did not defrost. Their withdrawal seems to be an act of turning away from such a situation to seek comfort in solitude." In a 1960 interview, Kanner bluntly described parents of autistic children as "just happening to defrost enough to produce a child."
Bettelheim, however, did the most to popularize the idea that children developed autism because their parents, especially their mothers, did not show them enough love, notably in his 1967 book The Empty Fortress. In the clip above from a 1979 episode of The Dick Cavett Show, he says that parents have the same relationship to their autistic children that Nazi guards had to the prisoners in concentration camps:
In the case of these extremely disturbed children, not only nobody cared, but there was a wish that it would be much better if the child wouldn't live... This autistic child felt that everybody wants him to be dead, as the Nazis indeed wanted all the Jews to be dead...
After Bettelheim killed himself in 1990, it was discovered that he had lied about many things, including his academic credentials. Former patients accused him of abuse.
The "refrigerator mother" theory is still popular in France, as shown in the documentary The Wall.