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!