email Join our email list! divider Register Login cartCart
Icarus Film
Films from independent
producers worldwide.
32 Court Street, Brooklyn, NY 11201divider(718) 488 8900
From The Fanlight Collection
Refrigerator Mothers
Directed by David Simpson, J.J. Hanley, and Gordon Quinn
 Text Size  Increase Font Size   Decrease Font Size   divider Printable VersionPrintable Version

film still

DVD special features include additional footage and interviews with the filmmakers.

From the 1950's through the 1970's, children with autism were widely thought to be victims of inadequate parenting. Influenced by Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, mental health and medical professionals claimed that autism was the product of mothers who were cold, distant, rejecting - unable to "bond properly." They were labeled "refrigerator mothers." Though this disastrous theory began to be seriously challenged in the mid-1960's, its effects lingered for decades. As recently as 1996, producer J.J. Hanley was told that her son's odd behaviors were the result of overanxious and overbearing mothering. Her family wasted many critical early intervention months before her son was finally diagnosed with autism.

In Refrigerator Mothers, seven women share their poignant stories. All but one were told by psychologists or physicians that they were to blame for their child's autism. The only exception, who is African-American, was told that her son could not be autistic because she did not fit the usual pattern: middle class, highly educated, and white. She was told, instead, that her son must be emotionally disturbed. Yet these courageous women refused to be crushed by the burden of blame. Today, they have strong, supportive relationships with their now adult sons and daughters and, in a variety of ways, have helped them to find their place in the world. Offering fascinating insights into the history of our understanding of mental illness and developmental disabilities, this fascinating and disturbing video raises questions that are of profound relevance today.

The video features historic broadcast interviews with Bettelheim himself, as well as excerpts from both Hollywood features and mental health "training films" of the period.

Contemporary context is provided by psychiatrist and author Robert Coles, MD, of Harvard; by Richard Pollak, author of The Creation of Dr. B: A Biography of Bruno Bettelheim; and by research psychologist Bernard Rimland, PhD, whose 1964 book, Infantile Autism, challenged Bettelheim's "bad mothering" thesis and argued for an understanding of autism as a biological disorder. Refrigerator Mothers was produced by Kartemquin Educational Films, and is a presentation of the Independent Television Service, with funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.


"An incredibly moving video that illustrates the history of autism through the life experiences and poignant stories of seven pioneering women and their children. Anyone involved in the life of an individual with an autism spectrum disorder must see this video. Quite simply, remarkable!" —Dr. Cathy Pratt, Board of Directors, Autism Society of America

"Editor's choice. An outstanding, thought-provoking title that, while uncovering a sad chapter in medical history, also raises awareness of ethical issues surrounding medical research in a sensitive, empathetic manner, this is highly recommended." —Video Librarian

"REFIGERATOR MOTHERS is arguably the best documentary ever made on the subject of autism. It manages to inform, entertain, educate and move its audience emotionally. My students and I find ourselves talking about it weeks after we've viewed it. REFRIGERATOR MOTHERS will transform your view of autism, parenthood, and the unique pressures brought to bear on families with special mental health needs." —Rick Mayes, University of Richmond

Featured on PBS POV
Best Documentary, Sedona International Film Festival 2002
Grand Jury Award, Florida Film Festival 2002
San Francisco International Film Festival 2002
Brooklyn International Disability Film Festival 2002
Northeastern Anthropological Association Conference 2002

53 minutes / Color
Release: 2002
Copyright: 2002

For colleges, universities, government agencies, hospitals and corporations

This DVD is sold with a license for institutional use and Public Performance rights.

Study guide available

Subject areas:
Autism, Brain Disorders, Disabilities, Disabilities & Parenting, Family Relations, Fanlight Collection, Healthcare History & Policy, Mental Illness, Parenting & Childbirth, Psychology, Social Work

Related Titles:
Home | New | Titles | Subjects | Ordering   
About | Best Sellers | Filmmakers | Screenings   
  Follow Us! On...
Facebook Follow Icarus Films on Twitter Instagram Vimeo YouTube
Copyright (c) 2024, Icarus Films
Last Updated January 25, 2024 [Build 3.0.a060-d7]
Privacy Policy