Obesity and Autism | Yet Another Refrigerator Mother Theory

The inspiration for this post comes from a chat I had yesterday with Leah Segedie, the health & fitness expert trusted by so many mothers. Leah alerted me to the just released study linking Obesity in Mothers to Autism in their children This sparked memories in me of when my son was diagnosed with classical Autism over 20 years ago. Memories of other studies that also sought to blame Mom for autism.

The “refrigerator mother”

Per Wikipedia

The term refrigerator mother was coined around 1950 as a label for mothers of children diagnosed with autism or schizophrenia. These mothers were often blamed for their children’s atypical behavior, which included rigid rituals, speech difficulty, and self-isolation.

In the absence of any biomedical explanation for what causes autism after the telltale symptoms were first described by scientists, Bruno Bettelheim, a University of Chicago professor and child development specialist, and other leading psychoanalysts championed the notion that autism was the product of mothers who were cold, distant and rejecting, thus deprived of the chance to “bond properly”. The theory was embraced by the medical establishment and went largely unchallenged into the mid-1960s, but its effects have lingered into the 21st century.”


So now the “refrigerator mother” is back & this time Mom is to blame, not for being cold & unfeeling but for opening the refrigerator door too often to eat? Seriously? as the mother of a young adult living with autism I cannot tell you just how angry this makes me! How well I remember reading literature placing the blame squarely on Mom &  tormenting myself wondering what it was that I had done to cause my child’s problems. Fact is they didn’t know what causes Autism in 1950, in 1987 and they still don’t know what causes it now!

We get it, being Fat is Bad

The obesity study linked above raises some excellent questions concerning maternal health, questions that clearly deserve further investigation but I fear this study will just turn into not only another way to blame Mothers for Autism spectrum disorders but also add more fuel to a growing hatred for those who struggle with weight issues. The “Refrigerator Mother” making a come back as we helplessly search for a safe place to lay the blame for the tidal wave of children with Autism Spectrum.

What if there is no Single Smoking Gun?

As a nation, we tend to like simple answers to problems & our quest to unlock the cause (and cure) for autism is no exception. What if there is no single causative factor? What if there is no smoking gun? Why must our default position be to blame Mom? Back in the grief stricken days after my son’s diagnosis I asked a kindly Neurologist what he thought might have caused my child’s problems, he replied ” in my opinion, Autism is like a neurological stew with a wide variety of manifestations & probably an even wider list of causative factors” . What if that doctor is right? (and I believe he is) What is to be gained by reverting to the fall back position of blaming good old Mom?

We Must join Together

Make no mistake, as a nation we have a crisis happening here, each day more and more kids on the autism spectrum turn 22 and age out of special education programs to a world with almost non-existent adult supports & services. We need the strengths of everyone in this country working together to deal with this health crisis. Blaming mothers & taking a backhanded swipe at overweight people in the process is NOT the way to go here. Support in various forms, understanding & yes EMPATHY is the way to unite everyone in finding solutions!

Many thanks to my friend Leah, her inspiration really helped me to explore some old feelings & gave me the courage to share them here with you!



About Jean Parks

Jean Parks is a chocolate & cupcake loving, computer & gadget addict from Boston, MA


  1. ellen says:

    Excellent post Jean!
    Just this past Christmas a woman who was invited by my Father in Law was blaming autism on things the Mother did – both before and after birth. I almost jumped across the table at her I was so mad.
    I don’t have a child with autism, but have worked with both kids and adults with disabilities for many years and know autism like many other things knows no bounds as far as rich/poor, good/bad etc. And certainly a finger can’t be pointed at any one thing.

  2. Jean Parks says:

    Ellen, I stewed about this issue all day! To be sure that study raised some excellent questions that need to be investigated by researchers more closely. I fear though that this will become just another way to blame mothers & to bash overweight people.

  3. I heard about this yesterday while watching the Today Show. While I understand the science behind it and the theory, but I also know that there was a rush to judgement a few years ago when people claimed that vaccinations perpetuated autism in children. After many other studies, this was practically debunked.

    I will continue to watch to see if more evidence is given for this theory.

    Great post!

  4. This will be interesting to watch evolve. What bothers me is the media is always talking about weight issues. Don’t most people know if they have a weight issue? I fear that all of this discussion about weight is having a negative impact on teens and tweens. Eating disorders are a major health issues, and with all of this “fear” the media puts into a pound here and there- this worries me. I do believe parents and over weight individuals are taking charge, by doing what they need to do to live a healthier lifestyle.

  5. Farah says:

    Excellent post, Jean!

    As the mother of a son on the spectrum (my 13 year-old has Asperger’s Syndrome) and with comorbidities (ADHD, speech problems, and a disability from his birth) it took me a long time to stop blaming myself for not doing enough, learning enough, being enough to him. I am in a better place now, but I don’t believe for a second that there is one simple solution to the problem of Autism. Honestly, I don’t even think that it is a condition that should have so many negative connotations associated with it. My son is the most awesome person I know, and I would not change him for anything. My only wish is that the world that he will have to live in as an adult will be more understanding and tolerant so that he can achieve hs maximum potential without the stigma of being “abnormal”.

    And, for the record, correlation DOES NOT prove causation. Period.

  6. Jean Parks says:

    Danyelle, I too will be keeping my eyes open for further developments from this research study. What scares me is this, overweight people have increasing become what many view as the last socially acceptable group to heap abuse on. Hell, I hear things said to and about overweight people that make me wince! Autistic kids cost money to educate & care for, in this fragile economy, I fear that ignorant folks won’t hesitate in bashing overweight mothers in order to try to lay blame.

  7. Jean Parks says:

    Farah, You raise some excellent points, issues which my son & I & many in the Autism community are also grappling with. Google neurodiversity, there’s a growing number of people who believe that autism is a “normal human difference”

    As a young adult, my son has choosen to attempt to adapt to & fit in the neurotypical world, a choice I support him in.

  8. Jean, I think more autistic families need to think like you. Attempt to adapt to and fit in the neurotypical world- I like that! I have to say I do feel that autism is a “normal human difference.” Kind of ties in with my feelings on the fact that not all kids will be “A” students. Kids are pressured that “C’s” are bad today when it comes to school. Perfection is expected- let’s face it, we are human beings!

  9. Farah says:

    Yes, I’m familiar with neurodiversity. I strongly believe that neurotypical children and autistic children who can tolerate being in groups can definitely inhabit the same space, as long as the children are taught to understand and be tolerant of the autistic child.

    My son and I try to strike a balance: at home, I allow him to be himself and engage in activities that he enjoys, but I make sure that he understands that there are social rules that must be followed in order for him to get along well with others. Our setback is that Matthew was diagnosed very late (at 10) and got the ADHD dx at the same time, so the co-morbidity complicated things a bit. He still has a lot to learn, and there aren’t many top notch services that working families like ours can afford. We do that best we can, though.

    I also want to note that if overweight or immunizations were really such a strong factor, I should have four autistic kids in my house, not one…. mama didn’t have no shame in her game when it came to eating during pregnancy! LOL

  10. Farah says:

    @ Sara, I totally agree with you on that! Not all children are academically strong, but they excel in other areas. I have always told my children that if they work hard and do their best and the best they get is a C, I’m okay with that. What I will not tolerate, is mediocrity or performance below your potential! I am blessed to have one future paleontologist (Matty), one aspiring singer, one budding artist, and one future rock and roll god…. LOL

  11. Jean Parks says:

    Sara, The problem with “fitting in & adapting” is that it takes time & money, there are scant resources for Autistic adults. We have a national crisis heading our way as more and more of these kids turn 22 & age out of all services. My son is 25 & still lives at home, multiply him by tens of thousands just like him.

    What happens to these adults when we parents die or are no longer able to care for them in our homes? How will our nation respond?

  12. Farah says:

    Sooooo true. I took me YEARS to finally get Matthew treated for his ADHD and now he’s stable, but not making much forward progress because resources are limited, and those that are available and needed (like social skills groups) are NOT covered by insurance… and are VERY expensive. It’s tough for families like mine to coordinate the right kind of resources for Matthew. Add to that the fact that Matthew’s IQ is considered superior, and so he does not qualify for services through the NYC Department of Disability Services. So, were’re stuck.

    Most recently, I discovered an special inclusion program for children with Asperger’s Syndrom in the NYC Public Schools, but it turns out that if Matthew is too much of a ‘behavior problem’ he will not be admitted into the program…. I was actually told that he would need to be able to basically operate as if he was in a general education class with 22 other kids in order to stay in the program, which is insane. The whole point of putting him in an inclusion environment with other kids is so that he can LEARN to operate in that environment!

  13. Jean Parks says:

    Farah, My son’s name is also “Matthew” :) he’s an aspiring accountant. Matt chose to study accounting because it plays one of his strengths, he also chose it because the field has solitary positions where he can work independently, plus, if he’s talented he’ll make good money.

    My only issue with the Neurodiversity crowd is this.. you cannot stand there & demand to be treated as just another flavor of “normal” while also demanding money & support services from people you contemptuously address as “Neurotypicals” ( LOL, I almost fainted the 1st time I was called that) So called “higher functioning” folks and their advocates IMHO must sadly walk a tightrope lest their POV cause taxpayers to vote against the funding & supports others on the spectrum might well require.Services like the social support groups & integrated classes that would so benefit your Matthew.

  14. Farah says:

    I see your point, Jean. I would argue that people who are dislexic are still treated normally, but they get special supports to help them cope with their challenges. Nearsighted people are treated as normal but they still need eyeglasses in order to operate better. In other words, asking people not to consider you retarded or in need of isolation because you cannot intuitively understand social norms and pragmatic speech is not being “two-faced”. but I can definitely tell you that because of Matthew’s dual exceptionality, life for him is extremely complicated. His teacher’s resent him for his attitude and rigid thinking even though they know that this is typical of autistic children, but because he has excellent vocabulary and can express himself well (if you ignore the repetetive speech patterns), they tend to forget that he still has trouble understanding what is and is not appropriate. My boy is, unfortunately living between a rock and a hard place. I once heard another aspie kid refer to is as “being half autistic and half not’.

    Oh, and Andy Lyons also has a Matthew who is autistic. :)

  15. Jean Parks says:

    Farah, I can totally empathize with the “rock and a hard place” position your child is placed in. This disorder truly is a ” neurological stew” with no two kids presenting in exactly the same way.

    Strange how we pray for our kids to gain speech & when they do it presents an entirely new set of issues like it has for your boy :(

  16. They only found a correlation but it wasn’t significant enough to create a causal relationship. That’s just statistical mumbo jumbo for “it’s only part of the reason, not the entire picture.” This week they have found correlations with the age of the father and obesity. I think as the research continues they are going to find our food supply and environmental factors to blame. They already know living close to a freeway, stress, and genes to be a factor. But these things are VERY hard to nail down because they usually are from an array of factors that you can’t really put together in a test lab efficiently. What I mean is they can test autistic lab rats till the end of time, but those rats will NEVER be exposed to all the things we are. So basically, things come out in pieces over years. I’m just hoping as they come out people see it for what it is, a piece of the puzzle. You can’t blame yourself for something like this. What’s done is done. We can only move forward. (My son has Aspergers. I’ve never really blamed myself EVEN THOUGH I knew it was likely because of all the stress I was under pregnant with him. I was caring for my dying father for crying out loud. And even if it caused it, I dont’ feel guilty for that for a second. That was my father.)