“I have seen the toll of autism parent-bashing firsthand, and it makes me sick to see a new crusade against parents.”
By Jonathan Mitchell
Many persons interested in autism have heard the term “Refrigerator Mother,” referring to mothers whose cold and uncaring parenting supposedly resulted in a child developing autism, or at one time, something called childhood schizophrenia. This idea was popularized by a fake psychologist named Bruno Bettelheim who explained autism using some of the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud. He also claimed he was able to ameliorate or possibly cure these conditions in a residential school he ran in Chicago.
Years later, evidence emerged these conditions might be due to a biological impairment of brain development rather than psychologic trauma from negligent parents. Fortunately, Bernard Rimland, father of an autistic boy, pioneered organic theories of autism in a book called Infantile Autism: The Syndrome and Its Implication for a Neural Theory of Behavior, published in 1964. But still the horrible Refrigerator Mother theory persisted for some time.
For most people, Bettelheim is a historical footnote, but my family and I lived this terrible era firsthand.
“For most people, Bettelheim is a historical footnote, but my family and I lived this terrible era firsthand. “
I was born in 1955 and shortly before my third birthday, my parents noted I had little to no speech, tantrums, and other problems. They took me to a neurologist to find out what was wrong, but he had no idea. In those days, very few people had ever heard of autism. They believed my problems were emotional rather than neurologic, and I began what would be ten years of frequently seeing a psychoanalyst.
In early 1958, my parents bought a lot and had a house built on it. They would devote much time to this project and painted the house themselves. My analyst said that by devoting too much time to the house they neglected me and helped cause my problems. My mom was told I would not recover unless she underwent psychiatric treatment and saw a psychiatrist for five years. Our psychotherapy bills, both mine and my mother’s, were so high my parents were audited by the IRS for writing them off as medical expenses.
The parent-blaming got worse. Because my symptoms presented right around the time of my sister’s birth, another Freudian trope – castration anxiety – was put down as another cause of my problems. The psychologist said I had suffered psychologic trauma because my parents had allowed me to see my sister naked when she was an infant. She posited that I thought my parents had castrated her, and that I feared my father would surely castrate me to avenge alleged sexual fantasies I had of my mom. A therapist also told my mom one of the reasons for my problems was because my mom had wanted a daughter instead of a son and that was why she was rejecting me. This absurd idea and blaming of my parents, particularly of my mother, traumatized my mom.
I stopped analysis at age thirteen. Not long afterwards, a consensus grew that autism was not a psychogenic condition, but a neurologic impairment resulting from some combination of genetics and environment. Psychoanalysis was replaced with behavior modification (nowadays called Applied Behavior Analysis) and other interventions.
But has the era of parent-blaming really come to an end?
It seems not. I have seen, particularly on Twitter, that militant believers in neurodiversity — the belief that rather than being a disability, autism is a strength, even a superpower — often express hostility and contempt toward parents of autistic children. They are mocked as “Autism Martyr Parents” who share on "Autism Mommy Facebook Groups” and constantly fail their children, who deserve to have better parents.
”Militant believers in neurodiversity…often express hostility and contempt toward parents of autistic children. They are mocked as ‘Autism Martyr Parents’ who share on ‘Autism Mommy Facebook Groups’ and constantly fail their children.”
I’ve been victimized by these neuro-thugs, too. Year ago, I started writing in various news groups and started my own blog, discussing how much I hated my autism and wanted a cure. Some persons called me a Nazi or Joseph Goebbels. Others called me insulting names such as turdball and butt wipe. Others mocked my disability. Some of these individuals stated that the reason for my impairments was not my autism per se, but because I had such a horrible, domineering mother who taught me to hate myself. They said had I not been taught autism is bad, I would not have had the attitudes I have now, and would have been a functional individual, able to hold down a high-paying job and get married. My mother was even called a witch and a yapping shrew by some. They may not have been actual disciples of Bettelheim, but it seemed darn close.
Autism parents are often at the receiving end of this sort of abuse. Neurodiversity bloggers have stated that parents who support prevention or treatments for autism were no different than members of the Ku Klux Klan. Recently, one mother posted a photo on Twitter of her autistic adult son sitting in a gym lobby while his father worked out, lamenting that he could not join his dad. She was immediately castigated, stating how dare she desire a normal life for her son. She was called an unfit mother and told that her son should be taken away from her.
One mom wrote about her autistic son, who chewed his shoe, and was castigated for violating his privacy. Another neurodiversity self-advocate posted a video on YouTube stating that parents of autistic children did not give a f**k about their children and wished their own children would drop dead. This is a subset of many examples of this behavior from neurodiversity proponents.
I have seen the toll of autism parent-bashing firsthand, and it makes me sick to see a new crusade against parents. I wish we could bury it six feet under.
Jonathan Mitchell is a man with autism living in Los Angeles. You can find him on Twitter at @autismgadfly and on Facebook and at his blog autismgadfly.blogspot.com.