refrigerator mothers

You could be forgiven for assuming that the ‘refrigerator mothers’ theory for the cause of autism has been consigned to the wastebasket of history. That might be true for children with a formal diagnosis of autistic disorder, but parents are still often under suspicion if their children have autistic characteristics but no diagnosis, or indeed any unusual behavioural characteristics but no diagnosis. Bruno Bettelheim is often credited with inventing the term ‘refrigerator mothers’, but Leo Kanner appears to have come up with the refrigerator analogy first.

Leo Kanner

Leo Kanner

In the comment section at the end of his 1943 paper, Kanner weighs up the evidence for the possible causes of autistic behaviour. The children have schizophrenic characteristics, but their condition differs from schizophrenia because it’s been present from birth – suggesting a biological origin. On the other hand “in the whole group, there are very few really warmhearted fathers and mothers” (p. 250), suggesting that development could have been disturbed by parental behaviour. In the end, Kanner concludes “The children’s aloneness from the beginning of life makes it difficult to attribute the whole picture exclusively to the type of the early parental relations with our patients. We must, then assume that these children have come into the world with innate inability to form the usual, biologically provided affective contact with people, just as other children come into the world with innate physical or intellectual handcaps [sic]” (p. 250).

But Kanner later changes his mind. In 1949 he describes his patients as in refrigerators which did not defrost.* In his 1956 paper with Leon Eisenberg he contrasts the low incidence of psychosis and neurosis in the children’s relatives (a sample of around 1000) with the much higher incidence in families of children with schizophrenia and concludes “Thus, if one limits his search for genetic factors to overt psychotic and neurotic episodes in family members, the results would appear to be negative” (p.8). After some discussion of parental characteristics, he decides; “The emotional frigidity in the typical autistic family suggests a dynamic experiential factor in the genesis of the disorder in the child” (p.8) and “These children were, in general, conceived less out of a positive desire than out an acceptance of childbearing as part of the marital contract” (p.10). But less than a decade later, when Bernard Rimland, in his book Infantile Autism: The Syndrome and Its Implications for a Neural Theory of Behaviour suggested that autism might have its origins in the brainstem, Kanner wrote the foreword. And in 1969, Kanner told the first annual meeting of the then National Society for Autistic children “I herewith especially acquit you people as parents” (Feinstein, 2010).

The discussion in the 1956 paper sheds light on what initially appears to be wavering on Kanner’s part about the cause of autism – now he’s blaming biology, now he’s blaming the parents. Kanner wasn’t so much undecided as aware that both factors could be involved. He goes into some detail about the interaction of biological and environmental factors in producing autistic characteristics and describes early infantile autism as ‘a total psychobiological disorder’ – in other words, it isn’t a case of its cause being either genetic or parental. As Michael Rutter observed; “What we have to differentiate is evidence of a broader phenotype. Kanner switched back and forward, which is a mark of his integrity” (Feinstein 2010).

Bruno Bettelheim

Bruno Bettelheim

For Bruno Bettelheim there was no uncertainty about the cause of autism. At first glance, Kanner and Bettelheim appear to have a good deal in common. They were both born into Jewish families in central Europe around the beginning of the 20th century. Both had their studies interrupted; Kanner by military service, Bettelheim by the death of his father. Both fled to the USA as ethnic refugees, both married and raised families there, and both became successful, respected figures in the field of child development. There the resemblance ends.

Bettelheim was born into a well-to-do Viennese family in 1903. As a teenager, he was fascinated by psychoanalysis and read all he could about it. He enrolled as a student of philosophy and history of art at the University of Vienna, but postponed his studies when his father died from syphilis and he had to take over the family lumber business. In 1930 Bruno married his first wife, Gina, who worked at a Montessori nursery. The couple took in a young American child, Patsy, whose mother had sent her to Vienna for therapy with Editha Sterba, a member of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute. Bruno was in therapy with Editha’s husband Richard for a while, and his connections with Patsy, the nursery and the Sterbas were to prove a turning point in his career.

Eventually, he was able to resume his studies and was awarded a doctorate in February 1938. Within a month, German troops had entered Austria and Gina had left for the USA with Patsy. Bruno remained in Vienna with his mother and sister. In June, he was arrested, jailed and then taken to Dachau. In September he was moved to Buchenwald and released the following April in an amnesty to mark Hitler’s 50th birthday. Patsy’s mother, Agnes, had managed to arrange a visa for him, and Bruno was reunited with Gina in the USA in May 1939. By then it was obvious that their marriage was over – both had had affairs – and Bruno settled down with Trude, a former girlfriend. His experience with psychoanalysis and child development also got him a job in the education department at the University of Chicago, which led to his appointment as director of the university’s Orthogenic School in 1944, where he was to remain until the early 1970s.

Most of these biographical details are from Richard Pollak’s fascinating biography of Bettelheim The Creation of Dr B. Pollak is aware that his account might be seen as biased. His younger brother, Stephen, had attended the Orthogenic School until his death in an accident whilst on holiday. Bettelheim’s disdain for the boys’ parents and his claim that Stephen had committed suicide despite Richard witnessing Stephen’s fall from a hayloft, and Bettelheim’s suicide in 1990, were what prompted Pollak to research Bettelheim’s life. Although Bettelheim probably had the children’s best interests at heart and certainly changed the Orthogenic School for the better, reactions to him were mixed to say the least. Comments from school staff, parents, children and his students are peppered with reports of admiration, intimidation and humiliation. There’s little doubt that he beat the children and there are some stories of sexual contact, although these accounts, if true, need to be set in context; corporal punishment was common at the time and the psychoanalytic theory embraced by Bettelheim saw sexual expression as natural. Some people hated him, but others felt that Bettelheim’s methods, even if frowned upon, were well-intentioned.

Refrigerator mothers

Probably more widespread harm was caused by Bettelheim’s view of parents, especially mothers. Bettelheim disapproved of children at his school going home for visits and viewed mothers as cold, uncaring and responsible for their children’s behavioural problems. Bettelheim set out his ideas in a series of books including The Empty Fortress: Infantile Autism and the Birth of the Self. Despite the popularity and influence of this book, it’s not clear how much experience of autistic children Bettelheim actually had. He claimed that two autistic children had lived at his home, although Patsy appears to have been the only one, and she wasn’t diagnosed as autistic. Visitors to the Orthogenic School commented on the fact that the children appeared to be normal, if troubled, kids. Bettelheim admitted only children with no physical or intellectual impairment, thus ruling out more severely autistic children. And the success of his techniques was called into question too. In the 1980s a study showed that during Bettelheim’s period as director Orthogenic School, of 220 children entering the school, only 13 were admitted with a diagnosis of autism (Bettelheim diagnosed many children himself) and not all the children had made the progress he claimed.

Aside from contrasts in their life experience, with regard to their contribution to autism research I want to highlight two key differences between Kanner and Bettelheim; the way they used evidence and their level of relevant expertise.

Use of evidence

Kanner had a medical background, derived testable hypotheses from the best theory available at the time, and wasn’t afraid to change his conclusions if the evidence dictated. Bettelheim had trained in philosophy and appears to have made up his mind in advance about the cause of autism and then selected evidence to support his theory. Pollak refers to an essay Bettelheim wrote about the philosophers who shaped his thinking as a student. Significantly, the philosophers – Lessing, Lange and Vaihinger – all saw historical truth as a construct of the mind. Vaihinger argued in his book The Philosophy of “As If” that even though fictions should not be mistaken for true propositions, they can work As If true (Pollak, 1997; p.15). Bettelheim seems to have put Vaihinger’s ideas into practice; in a cv compiled in 1942 he exaggerated his credentials and frequently reported events in a way which conflicted with the recollection of other witnesses.

Level of relevant expertise

Kanner was aware that his theories about the cause of autistic characteristics were limited by the biological knowledge available at the time. Nonetheless, he clearly understood the complexity of child development and was careful to rule out a number of possible causes for autism before arriving at his conclusions. Without doubt, Bettelheim was also knowledgeable, about psychoanalysis and theories of child development that is; the reference section in The Empty Fortress is extensive. But he appears to have had little knowledge about biology and his explanations for the children’s behaviour are in terms of psychoanalytic concepts only. Indeed, he was actively opposed to biological theories for the causes of autism, attacking Kanner and Rimland in The Empty Fortress and telling Thomas Kemper that his brain studies must indicate a different kind of autism (Feinstein, 2010).

Bettelheim’s influence

What puzzles me is how Bettelheim’s book could become so influential amongst professionals with medical training, long after research into genetics and brain function had shown that psychoanalytic and psychodynamic theories of child development were lacking. Bettelheim was preoccupied by psychoanalytic symbolism. He saw the children’s interest in balls, balloons, light fittings and automobile headlamps as symbolic of their relationship with the breast. Their words had deep symbolic meaning – ‘breakfast’ meant ‘break breast’, ‘Connecticut’ meant ‘connect-I-cut’ and even an interest in the weather on the part of a non-verbal child symbolized her fear that she might be devoured (‘weather’ meant ‘we/eat/her’). This should have been enough to suggest that his theory might not have a solid grounding. Bettelheim’s use of symbolism extended to his lectures, resulting in the (in)famous knitting/masturbation story. Bettelheim is reported to have said to a female student, knitting during one of his lectures; “Don’t you realize your knitting is nothing but a sublimated form of masturbation? You’re sitting in front of the entire class masturbating.” The student is alleged to have replied; “Dr Bettelheim, when I knit, I knit! And when I masturbate, I masturbate!”

Despite the lack of evidence for his theories they were very influential. The Empty Fortress was the first book on autism translated into Spanish, Bettelheim’s lectures were shown on French national tv, in the 1980s most of the books on autism in Danish libraries were by Bettelheim, and it wasn’t until 1998 that the International Association for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Allied Professions decided that “parents have absolutely no responsibility for their children’s autism” (Feinstein 2010). As Judy Barron, the parent of an autistic child, observed when she read The Empty Fortress, “I wasn’t a scientific reader and I certainly wasn’t a researcher; I was a twenty-four-year-old mother; but I just didn’t see any evidence to support his pronouncements” (Pollak, 1997, p. 275).

The use of evidence and levels of expertise; two factors that I plan to explore further in the next post.


Bettelheim, B. (1967). The Empty Fortress: Infantile Autism and the Birth of the Self. The Free Press.
Eisenberg, L. & Kanner, L. (1958). Early infantile autism 1943-1955. In C. F. Reed, I. E. Alexander and S. S. Tomkins (eds.) Psychopathology: A Source Book, Harvard University Press.
Feinstein, A (2010). A History of Autism. Wiley Blackwell.
Kanner, L. (1943). Autistic disturbances of affective contact. Nervous Child, 2, 217-250.
*Kanner L (1949). Problems of nosology and psychodynamics in early childhood autism. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 19, 416–26.
Pollak, Richard (1997). The Creation of Dr B, Simon & Schuster

*Paper behind paywall – the citation is from various sources.

image of Bettelheim: Ottofroehlich under Creative Commons licence