Abstract: From Refrigerator Mothers to Bad Parents: Or, the More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same (Society for Social Work and Research 14th Annual Conference: Social Work Research: A WORLD OF POSSIBILITIES)

95P From Refrigerator Mothers to Bad Parents: Or, the More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

Saturday, January 16, 2010
* noted as presenting author
Susan Neely-Barnes, PhD , University of Tennessee, Assistant Professor, Memphis, TN
J. Carolyn Graff, PhD , University of Tennessee Health Science Center, Assistant Professor, Memphis, TN
Heather Hall, PhD , University of South Alabama, Assistant Professor, Mobile, AL
Ruth J. Roberts, EdD , University of Tennessee Health Science Center, Training Coordinator, Memphis, TN
Background and Purpose

In the middle part of the 20th century, mothers were frequently blamed for causing autism (see Eisenberg, 2001 for a review). Practicing social workers today frequently meet adults with autism who were at one point told that their mother's cold, distant, or “refrigerator” behavior caused their autism. Older families' experiences of being blamed for the child's autism can translate into a continued mistrust of professionals. Today, parents of young children receiving the autism diagnosis would never be told they are the cause. Yet, the findings of this qualitative study suggest that professionals, extended family, and the community continue to attribute the behavior of children with autism to bad parenting.


Data were collected in two focus group sessions with a total of eleven parents. While the focus groups were originally formed to discuss parent-sibling communication, an important theme of parent blame for the child's autism-related behavior emerged from the parent-to-parent discussions.

Once data were collected, the audio tapes of the focus group interviews were transcribed and data were imported into Nvivo7. Using an interpretive method, two investigators read, identified, and agreed on units of meaning. To ensure rigor, investigators adhered to the following set of procedures. Both investigators independently coded each text unit in the transcripts, compared codes, resolved differences, and formed a preliminary definition for each code. Codes were organized into categories. Themes emerged after reflection on these categories. An iterative process was followed as the investigators returned to the data to make certain their interpretation as represented by categories and themes was consistent with the data. The investigators used discussion to review analytical memos, re-contextualize the data, explore biases and disagreements, and build consensus (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005).


The majority of parents who participated were mothers (81.8%). Five of the parents were White, four were African-American, one was Asian American, and one was Latina. The mean age of the parents was 42.8 years.

The “bad parent" theme was described across interactions with extended family members, professionals, community members, and church members. Both mothers and fathers described circumstances in which they were viewed as bad parents. Parents described using various strategies to avoid interactions that led to them being blamed for the child's behavior, sometimes limiting the amount of interaction the family had the community and at other times lashing out in anger. Examples will be presented.

Implications and Conclusions

Parent blame for autism still exists today, and it has important implications for research and practice with parents of children with autism. We hypothesize that the ascribed “bad parent” label may be partly responsible for the high rates stress and depression already described in the parent population (Abbeduto, Seltzer, Shattuck, Krauss, Orsmond, & Murphy, 2004; Hastings & Brown, 2002) and suggest future research on this topic. We also suggest that practicing social workers become aware of the harsh treatment of parents and engage in advocacy to support parents in their interactions with professionals and the community.