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Refrigerator Mothers [DVD] [English] [2002]
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Special Features

  • Interview with the filmmakers
  • Additional scenes
  • Soundtrack
  • Web links


Refrigerator Mothers
Director David E. Simpson teams with producers J.J. Hanley and Gordon Quinn for this documentary examining the "Refrigerator Mother" phenomenon in which mothers from the 1950s and 60s were forced to shoulder the blame for their children's autism. Though completely discredited today, the "Refrigerator Mother" theory stated that autism resulted when a mother failed to bond with her child. As a result, an entire generation of mothers was forced to contend with crushing feelings of self-doubt while their autistic children were subjected to a variety of questionable therapies. A frightening neurological disorder in which seemingly normal children slide into a state of mental isolation, autism affects more than one in 500 Americans. One of the first child specialists to focus on the disorder was Bruno Bettleheim, whose early-life experiences in a Nazi concentration camp led him to surmise that, much like the relationships between desperate prisoners and their coldly authoritative guards, autism was a psychological disturbance that resulted when "frigid" mothers remained emotionally distanced from their children. But while a few lone voices were brave enough to speak out against Bettleheim's theory, it remained largely unchallenged until well into the 1960s. Today the "Refrigerator Mother" theory has been completely dismissed, yet the damage has already been done. In Refrigerator Mothers, the filmmakers challenge us to gain a better understanding of the role that the medical establishment plays in our lives and the dangers of misdiagnosis by speaking with the very mothers who were rejected by society despite the fact that they never stopped loving their children. ~ Jason Buchanan, Rovi

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