Refrigerator Moms


By: Erica Egnor

When I was asked to write this blog article, I asked myself “What’s an interesting question that I receive often?” It didn’t take much pondering, as one immediately popped into mind. It’s an interesting and seemingly innocent question that could easily offend someone, which made it even more blog-worthy.

The question went something like this: “So, since these kids [meaning, children with autism] need so much one-on-one therapy, do you think it’s possible that they just didn’t get enough attention at a young age?”  This question was naively asked by one of the most intellectual people I know. Knowing the blameless intentions of this individual and the touchiness of the subject matter, I felt the need to explain, as delicately as possible, why this question is offensive. Here is a breakdown of how I went about it;

  1. The history of this question begins half a century ago. In the 1950’s and 60’s the medical field blamed autism on the mother’s failure to bond with her child. The “refrigerator mother” diagnosis condemned many children with autism to questionable therapies, and their mothers to a lifelong nightmare of self-doubt and guilt.
  2. I explained how signs and symptoms can be seen in babies, such as; doesn’t make eye contact, doesn’t smile when smiled at, doesn’t follow objects visually etc. There’s been eye tracking studies conducted, which indicated Infants who go on to develop autism look at faces less often than other babies. My point is, symptoms are apparent at a very young age.
  3. We now know autism is a neurological disorder; there is clearly a genetic component, as it tends to run in families.

To summarize my explanation: No; children do not “form” or “acquire” Autism because they lacked parental attention at a young age. Genes are definitely involved!