Why do some people blame “bad parenting” for autism?

When you’re a parent, every day can be tough. Every day can be a challenge. Every day can bring about new questions, new circumstances, new frustrations, and it can feel like it’s just too much.

When you’re a parent of a child with autism, those challenges, circumstances, questions and frustrations feel like they’re double what other parents go through. You might feel like you’re not doing enough, or you’re doing too much, or you just can’t get it right.

So when others blame your parenting as the reason your child has autism, it can hurt on so many levels.

But why is this even an accusation?

In the 1940s, Austrian psychiatrist Leo Kanner came up with a term called “refrigerator mother.” He used this term to describe mothers who were cold, insensitive, uncaring. He believed that such parenting behavior was so traumatic that it caused autism spectrum disorder.

Because of other childhood trauma theories, like those of Sigmund Freud’s, circulating in growing circles, many people adopted Kanner’s belief. It’s important to note that many of the families Kanner worked with, alongside autism expert Hans Aspberger, were upper-middle class – who may have exhibited, publicly, formal behavior. This kind of reservation led to the idea that if this is how mothers presented themselves, they must be cold and uncaring toward the child, externally and internally.

For the three decades that followed, the theory stuck. Bruno Bettelheim, highly renowned for his teachings on child development, took to the idea, and compared such “cold” parents to Nazi soldiers, and helped spread the “refrigerator mother” concept through media.

Fortunately, in the 1970s, the refrigerator mother concept would be debunked.

The founder and director of the Autism Research Institute, Bernard Rimland, was a parent of a child with autism, and rather than buy into this theory, considered carefully better ways of understanding what caused autism – he couldn’t become part of the masses who thought that autism was a result of poor parenting.

Rimland’s process included extensive research, as well as gathering parents together in conversation. Thanks to him, the idea that parenting can cause autism has been fully erased. We know now that autism is caused by environmental and genetic factors, not how we mother or father our children.

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