Refrigerator Mothers

I would like to create work about the ‘Refrigerator Mothers’ discredited theory. I’ve been trying to find funding to create an artwork but have been unsuccessful and so I wish to create an example of the potential work. I am currently working with BOM (Birmingham Open Media) to do so.

The ‘Refrigerator Mother’s’ theory created a blame culture which still has an impact today where parents are blamed for ‘bad parenting’ or seen as ‘pushy’ or ‘over-protective’ for their children’s rights. Many are exhausted from the amount of energy needed to fight for their children when barriers are put up in front of them.  

Would you like to share your story of parental love?

I would like to create a refrigerator of love by sharing 5 individual stories including from an autistic child, an autistic adult, a parent of an autistic child, a parent of an autistic adult, a autistic adult parent to an autistic child and a autistic child of an autistic parent.

I would like to record 1 minute audio clips about neurodivergent parental love that will play within a refrigerator. 

Please email inclusiveartspractitioner@gmail.com if you would like to take part or if you have any questions.

What is the ‘Refrigerator Mothers’ theory?


Dr. Leo Kanner a psychiatrist (who diagnosed autism ‘case one’- Donald Triplett) coined the term ‘Refrigerator Mothers’ in the 1950s. He believed that autism was caused by a lack of love from their mothers (parents) and were freezing their children into a form of child schizophrenia (early on in autism research it was believed that autism was a form of childhood schizophrenia). 

There are two articles printed in Time Magazine where Dr. Leo Kanner is interviewed about his ‘Refrigerator Mothers’ theory: 

Medicine: The Child is Father (Time Magazine, July 25 1960)

But there is one type of child to whom even Dr. Kanner cannot get close. All too often this child is the offspring of highly organised, professional parents, cold and rational – the type that Dr. Kanner describes as “just happening to defrost enough to produce a child” https://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,826528,00.html

Medicine: Frosted Children (Time Magazine, April 26 1948) 

 They had what Dr. Kanner calls “early infantile autism”; it is, he thinks, a diaper-age form of the mental disease called schizophrenia (split personality), which may develop before a child is a year old. How did they get that way? Dr. Kanner took a hard look at their parents…The children, says Dr. Kanner, were “kept neatly in a refrigerator which didn’t defrost.”

http://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,798484,00.html

In Dr. Leo Kanner’s 1949 research paper he writes a “…genuine lack of maternal warmth…. 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….” https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1111%2Fj.1939-0025.1949.tb05441.x

Bruno Bettelheim also enforced this view with his best seller book published in 1967 ‘Empty Fortress: Infantile Autism and the Birth of the Self’ which compared autistic children to prisoners of second world war concentration camps. His book sold more than fifteen thousand hardcover copies at a time when autism was hardly heard of.