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Jewish World Review July 29, 2004 / 11 Menachem-Av, 5764

Lenore Skenazy

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Consumer Reports

Autism needs to break out of ice age | You have a wonderful little baby, sweet and quiet. But when he cries, your hugs don't comfort him. When you smile, he stares straight through you. And when you bring him to the doctor, you're told:

Of course he's withdrawing from you! It's your fault for being so cold! You are a Refrigerator Mom.

From the 1940s to the '60s and sometimes even into the present, that is exactly what the medical profession told the mothers of children born with autism.

Which just happens to be unconscionably wrong. Though autism has no known cause - or cure - we now know it has nothing to do with parenting.

In "Refrigerator Mothers," a documentary honoring the moms who suffered the guilt of this gross misdiagnosis, producer J.J. Hanley outlines its origins. The theory was popularized by Bruno Bettelheim, a psychiatrist who had been imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp.

There, Bettelheim saw prisoners withdrawing into their shells. Years later, when he saw autistic children doing something similar, he assumed it was for the same reason: "The autistic child [feels] everybody wants them to be dead," he said. And what kind of parent could possibly want that? Moms as cold as Nazis.

How likely is that?

The moms in the documentary, originally aired on public TV's "P.O.V." series, haul out old home movies of their children doing things like rocking and flapping. Nostalgia mixes with anger.

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"I didn't find out for 18 years that I wasn't at fault, and I can't quite overcome it," says one quietly.

They visit their children, now grown and living in group homes. One asks her middle-aged son to water the flowers and, expressionless, he empties the watering can on the stoop. His mom gives a warm little laugh. That's just the way it is.

"Aw, how pretty," says another mom, brushing her daughter's hair as the young woman stares into space.

To see these stubbornly loving families is to desperately hope no one ever again gets blamed for bringing on autism. And yet it still happens, as Hanley well knows:

In 1996, worried that her 3-year-old was not speaking and spent all his time alone, she took him to the doctor. "He said, 'There's nothing wrong with him,'" recalls Hanley. "It's you. You're overbearing and neurotic. Leave him alone.'"

Luckily, she didn't. She took him to another doctor and learned he has autism. After working with her son intently for eight years, he can talk, hang with friends and go to school. Says Hanley proudly, "He's great!"

Were it not for Bettelheim, however, it's possible he could be even better. Decades of research time were lost when scientists didn't bother to study autism because they were told its cause was obvious: Mom!

As the number of kids with autism soars, from one in 3,000 10 years ago to as many as one in 166 today, Bettelheim's legacy is a cold one indeed.

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JWR contributor Lenore Skenazy is a columnist for The New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.

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