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I remember when social workers blamed autism on parents.
Tue Feb 21, 2017 1:02pm

Please note: the text has been edited ONLY to remove whole paragraphs, to shorten it.]

AMA Journal of Ethics. April 2015, Volume 17, Number 4: 353-358

History of Medicine
Mothers and Autism: The Evolution of a Discourse of Blame

Mitzi M. Waltz, PhD

This is one topic around which autism’s past intersects with its present. The current expectation of full-time, “professional” autism parenting is rooted in a discourse of mother blaming persistently woven into the history of autism, even before the condition was named and defined.

Clinical work was typically with mothers rather than the children themselves. For example, sociologist Ernest Groves, who with his wife Gladys Groves pioneered marriage counseling within Child Guidance clinics, declared that even typical mothering was pathological and in need of scientific improvement. The Groveses suggested that both too much affection and too little attention could impair development and directed parents towards professional guidance to get the balance right [8]. Through books, radio programs, speaking tours, and magazine articles, pundits like the Groveses, pediatrician and psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, and, eventually, psychologist Bruno Bettelheim sought to change the behavior of mothers to prevent social disorder, crime, and disability. Only with professional guidance and scientific practice, they argued, could mothers save their children and, by extension, society. “Correct” mothering practice was extensively described, starting with the right way to hold and feed an infant and moving on through when and how often children should be hugged, kissed, scolded, or spanked. Psychologists claimed correct maternal behavior would lead to hard-working, self-disciplined, law-abiding adults; any variance would create weak-minded, badly behaved, aberrant adults with a propensity for crime and radicalism [9].

In this context, under the direction of psychiatrist Adolf Meyer at Johns Hopkins University, Leo Kanner established in 1930 the first US child psychiatry clinic [10], which was strongly influenced by Child Guidance precepts [11]. Meyer introduced two key principles: the primacy of the case study in child psychiatry research and mother blaming. Meyer wrote that the home studies he performed with his wife, Mary Potter Meyer, “obtained help in a broader social understanding of our problem and a reaching out to the sources of sickness, the family and the community”—that is, to mothers [7].

Along with their now-much-maligned colleague Bruno Bettelheim, who further popularized the figure of the “refrigerator mother,” these eminent researchers were wrong [15, 16]. Parents needed only to look at their other, nonautistic, children to see it. But challenging a hegemonic discourse is difficult, and it was especially so in this context, since the Child Guidance movement had long since popularized the idea that professionals were far more knowledgeable and trustworthy than ordinary parents.


  • New Information On AutismAmadeus, Tue Feb 21 12:00pm more
    • with only 100 at-risk children, the study is too small to be considered definitive So much for that! Next!
      • Were other family members ch (nm)jb, Wed Feb 22 7:16am
      • Yes, Mondo, The Article Itself Says That...Amadeus, Wed Feb 22 7:05am
        The point is that this indicates something that should be studied for verification. If we can catch the earliest signs of autism, we can begin using that information to test interventions. And that... more
        • Step One ...Mondo Fuego™ , Wed Feb 22 5:51pm
          ... quit overloading babies with toxic combinations of vaccine ... spread them out ... then conduct your long overdue studies. In the meantime, quit sucking the air out of the room with your... more
          • Step One...Amadeus, Thu Feb 23 7:10am
            Don't latch onto flawed (and fraudulent) research claims, then panic and deviate from the vaccination schedule recommended by doctors. Don't latch onto flawed (and fraudulent) claims that vaccines... more
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