Refrigerator Mothers, Warrior Mothers: One and the Same?

Is the “warrior mother” not—as proclaimed in the Warrior Mothers book put together by Jenny McCarthy—the opposite of the “refrigerator mother” of the previous generation, but rather her “distorted mirror image”? So argues Dr. Michael Fitzpatrick, author of another new book, Defeating Autism: A Damaging Delusion, argues in yesterday’s Spiked. As Fitzpatrick writes in his essay, The ghost of the ‘refrigerator mother’,

The ‘warrior mom’ is yet another reflection of the culture of mother-blaming and a manifestation of the burden of guilt carried by parents as a result of the influence of pseudoscientific speculations about the causes of autism……
A number of common themes link McCarthy’s ‘warrior moms’ with the spectre of the ‘refrigerator mother’ popularised by the child psychotherapist and author Bruno Bettelheim and others in the 1950s and 1960s. First, there is a common belief that autism has some environmental cause. Then it was toxic parents; today it is alleged environmental toxins (such as vaccines containing traces of mercury or MMR) to which parents have exposed their children. These theories also have the common features that they are entirely speculative and lacking in scientific support.

Second, both concepts are linked to ‘conversion narratives’, quasi-religious experiences of personal transformation or redemption with deep roots in evangelical Christianity (see James T Fisher’s piece ‘No Search, No Subject? Autism and the American Conversion Narrative’, in Mark Osteen’s collection of essays, Autism and Representation). Then, cure was achieved through the intervention of a charismatic psychotherapist. Today, recovery is also the result of the ministry of another charismatic therapist, in the form of a DAN! practitioner prescribing biomedical therapies.

What links warrior mother and refrigerator mother is “feelings of guilt, anger and blame.” Besides the essay by Fisher (regularly referred to on this blog as Jim, my husband and a cultural historian in New York), Fitzpatrick also refers to another essay in Osteen’s collection, by University of Leeds professor Stuart Murray. Murray has written about the representation, and misrepresentation of autism, in contemporary culture in a recently published book. As Fitzpatrick notes:

Reflecting on the ‘outlandish, offensive misrepresentation of autism’ in Bruce Beresford’s Silent Fall and other films, Murray concludes that ‘overall, it is debatable how much progress has been made in cinematic depictions of autism since the foundational success of Rain Man’.

For Murray, there is a danger that ‘autism as metaphor’ floats free from the condition itself and the concept becomes so diffuse as to be meaningless. He links this metaphoric inflation of autism to the quest for environmental causes and the popular resonance of speculative notions such as that of an autism epidemic attributable to vaccines: ‘Possibly what unites all these scenarios is an idea of toxins, of the problem being some form of poison, be it physical and somatic or environmental.’ As he presciently observes, ‘at times, we seem to worry that we cause autism by living the wrong way’.

That we cause autism by living the wrong way. Is this sentiment not floating in the thoughts of parents who demand their right to choose vaccination for their children or not? Behind the green “Too Good” line of household cleaning products etc. that McCarthy has announced she is launching? Once, parents (and mothers in particular) were blamed for causing autism in their children because they (it was claimed) withheld their emotions from their children and in effect starved them of the opportunity for emotional attachment and development. Now, parents rather clamor to withhold vaccines from their children, in the misguided belief that doing so is for the sake and safety of their children; that they can do nothing less than to protect their children from the dreaded toxins in the environment—-the environment not being the emotionally frigid home environment caused by Bettelheim’s bad mothers, but the environment “out there” of polluted, woefully de-greened rocks and stones and trees?

By this account, McCarthy’s self-proclaimed transformation from MTV-starlet into anti-MMR/mercury/etc. advocate—a veritable “mission from God” as she herself has said—is not simply superficial, but “quasi” all the way. It’s a quasi-religious conversion, and, too, a quasi-conversion that still features reports of a stripper, er, autism pole and some reordering of the facts to allow for a proper Hollywoodish ending. In Jenny McCarthy’s book(s), her child has to “recover” from autism. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have a book.

Or, she might have to end her book with the kind of endings noted in another book that Fitzpatrick cites, Families of Adults with Autism: Stories and Advice for the Next Generation. As he notes,

A striking contrast is immediately apparent between these stories and those in the Warrior Mothers collection: whereas McCarthy focuses on tales of ‘recovery’ in young children, none of the accounts in Families of Adults with Autism tells of a diagnosis of autism ‘lost’ or withdrawn. Indeed, none of these adults is living independently and some accounts describe major enduring problems of self-injury or other challenging behaviours. This may be a result of selection – these stories largely come from parents of adults with high levels of need. It may also be a result of the inaccurate reporting of ‘recovery’ in the McCarthy cases. It is also striking that, although many of the contributors pay tribute to Rimland’s role as a campaigner, few give more than a token acknowledgement to the benefits of his biomedical treatments (such as Vitamin B6 and Magnesium, Dimethylglycine and Secretin) and none claims that such interventions have resulted in ‘recovery’.

All this is all the more notable because one of the editors of Families of Adults with Autism: Stories and Advice for the Next Generation is Jane Johnson, the Executive Director of Defeat Autism Now. She writes on the Defeat Autism Now website:

…..thanks to the insights and tenacity of the parents, and the determination, professionalism, and open-mindedness of our researchers and clinicians, we can say unequivocally at every Defeat Autism Now!® Conference: Autism is Treatable. Recovery is Possible! We know this to be true.

That “autism is treatable,” that “recovery is possible”: These are strong and fervently held beliefs by some practitioners and parents who, like McCarthy, have turned the story of their autistic child into a personal narrative of self-redemption. So long as the story of autism is told through the eyes of a parent in need of a conversion—of saving herself as much and even more than saving her child—so will the “ghost of the refrigerator mother” still haunt, and no “angry mob” of warrior moms will quite be able to banish her away.

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    • Harold L Doherty


    • RAJ

      Fitzpatrick also claims there is no environmental basis for any case of autism. In fact, the only known strong assosication found in well designed studies are all ‘environmental’.. Rubella autism, thalidomide embryopathy, anti-convulsant syndrome, Valproate Acid Syndrome, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, and newborn encelopathy.

      Because there is no evidence that vaccines ’causes’ autism’ he exptrapolates that to the illogical conclusion that there is no environmental component in autism.

      Fitzpatrick is a GP with an autistic child and follows another ‘blame game’. The parents have produced genetically defective children and need to accept his beleif, tat there is such thing as ‘recovery’ because his own child has not ‘recovered’.

      No gene that ’causes’ autism has ever been identified, none, and I challenge anyone to name a single gene that causes ‘autism’ that is not a mental retardation gene with a small subgroup possessing enough isolated secondary symptoms to qualify for an ASD diagnosis.

      So we have three seperate Mom groupings, the ‘Refrigerator Mother’, the “Warrior Mother’ an the ‘Delusional Mother’, those who have been absolutely convinced, based on little evidence that autism is genetic transmitted, there is no treatment, and generally will always see more ‘autistic traits’ in their spouses than in themselves.

      As far as recovery, it exists and is associated with early diagnosis, early intervention but not with Bio-Medical treatments:

      Is there a genetic component in autism. Of course, but there is also a genetic component in leprosy and HIV.. Autism continues to come under the domain of cognitive psychology, child psychiatry and evolutionary biology. To this group, the environment doesn’t exist and the decades of failure to advance any understanding of autism etiology is itself a damning indictment.

      Until ‘autism’ comes under the domain of medical research rather than ‘psychiatri’ research, the dismal record o fifty years of failure will continue.

    • CS

      Raj’s link has as one of its authors the infamous Margaret Herbert, a recent devotee of quackery.

    • passionlessDrone

      Hi Raj –

      I am in complete agreement with your position that autism must be viewed as a medical problem, as opposed to a psychological one, but conversely very confused by your position on biomedical treatments. How else does one treat a medical condition?

      There are documented cases of recovery with biomedical treatments. Please see:

      “Folate receptor autoimmunity and cerebral folate deficiency in low-functioning autism with neurological deficits.” (2007)

      The authors observed partial or complete clinical recovery in patients found to exhibit folate receptor autoimmunity consequently treated with high doses of folinic acid. Though, again, in this case, age of treatment initiation had a large impact on efficacy.

      - pD

    • Suz

      Kristina, you (and Jim) are amazing! I read your blog “religiously” and this entry reminded me of why I keep coming back. Great comments, links and information to ponder. Love it-thanks for sharing this information with those of us just trying to muddle through! Happy early Thanksgiving to you all.

    • Storkdok

      I think he is correct in comparing “warrior” mothers to “refrigerator” mothers as a complete distortion of us as mothers.

      The vast majority of mothers do what they do because they love their kids, and I really don’t think we are all that amazing, we are moms. I have a lot of people tell me I am “an inspiration” as the mother of a son with autism. Baloney, my kid has different needs and I do what I need to to meet his needs, which are different from my 3 year old’s needs. I’m sure they would do the same if their child had a particular challenge in life. A lot of them do when their kids have something other than autism.

      I am not a warrior mom, I’m just A’s mom, simple as that.

    • Catana

      Kristina, in case you’re not aware of it, I just found a website that copies entire articles and web posts. They do give a link back, but unless you’re okay with this, I suggest you contact them. This post is at:

      Duplication affects the Google ranking of your own article, and I’m sure the b5 network wouldn’t be too happy with that. You might want to take a look and see if they have any more of your posts on the site. I just found one of mine, which is why I looked around. I had just read your post, so had no problem recognizing it.

    • ASDmomNC

      Oh for heaven’s sake. Well then call me “delusional,” RAJ, because I think biomed is quackery and that autism is about as “curable” as down syndrome.

      My child was born autistic because it is who he is. He doesn’t need to be “cured” of it any more than he needs a “cure” for his brown eyes or straight hair.

      It’s called acceptance. Try it.

      ANYWAY, Kristina, brilliant and enlightening post, as usual.

    • Emily

      That essay is fantastic and insightful…I like the observations and find them worthy of thought. The dismissive “nonsense” is interesting given that much of the essay is devoted to a pretty common sociological manifestation that, rather than being specific to autism, is generalized to many many scenarios. Can’t see how that’s nonsense.

      Thanks for bringing this one to our attention, Kristina. I always like your posts, but this has moved to the top of the “favorites” list.

    • Leila

      Very intelligent and thought-provoking post. I’m with Storkdok, although I do feel like a warrior sometimes but I’d be the same way regardless of my son having special needs or not. I’m very protective and I want the best for my son, which I think is a very common mothering style. : )

      Now there’s a side to this discussion that worries me. When “warrior parents” get attached to the idea of complete recovery and can’t bear to think that the child’s life may never be they way they envisioned. Like the other day a father of an autistic 3 year old said “Without any doubt, [my son] will be recovered” (on Redbook magazine). I mean, how can he have any idea of his prognosis at this early stage. It’s something he can’t assure, he can’t control. He can do his best to offer him therapies and treatment, but only time will tell if his son will become fully verbal and able to live independently.

    • Harold L Doherty

      The posters here who endorse such attacks on other parents for acting in what they consider to be their children’s best interests should remember the old adage “what goes around comes around”.

      Shame on you.

    • Dedj

      “Shame on you.”

      Why? Just because someone *thinks* they’re acting in thier childs best interest, doesn’t mean they actually are.

      Being a parent should never be protection against criticism, nor is it a gateway to knowledge and understanding. Thus it should not be treated as such.

    • siliconmom

      Kristina – As always, your thoughts are a pleasure to read and I thank you for sharing them in a public forum.

      Raj – I disagree with your statements about autism not being genetic. First, there have been several studies linking genes to autism. No, there is one single gene to blame, but the evidence suggests a genetic basis for this disorder. If you read through past posts on this very website you will find links to those studies.

      From my personal experience: I have 5 children. 3 are my stepchildren from my husband’s first marriage and 2 are from our marriage. Of our five, my two stepsons have Asperger’s and my two daughters have High Functioning Autism. My stepdaughter has ADHD. The common factor these children have is their father. If you look at my husband’s family, you can see these same autistic traits in the older generation as well as in my husband. In addition, I have a family history of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and my husband’s ex wife has a family history of bipolar disorder and depression. All of that mixed together makes for a powerful cocktail, don’t you think?

      I only see autism in my husband? There are traits in my daughters that I have observed in myself for years. It’s actually been very interesting watching them grow and to see those similarities. I appreciate that connection with them, frankly, to see my husband and I in all our children. As my husband likes to say, our children are us taken to the next level in many ways.

      I believe there’s no treatment? Really? Then why on earth am I allowing my children to receive SDC, Speech, OT and ABA services through an IEP at their schools? Why did I have 30 hours a week of ABA therapists in my home for over a year when my last child was diagnosed (because anyone who’s done it knows what a joy it is to have in home therapy five days a week from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.)? Why did we pay for social skills groups for our eldest son when he was first diagnosed at 12 because the school said that he didn’t qualify for services because his standardized test scores were too high and he didn’t throw chairs in class? Why do I spend hours volunteering to get the word out that there are resources available to give families the tools they need to help their children become all that they can be? Why do we participate in research to help understand the causes of autism and have our children participate in trainings to help educate physicians and mental health professionals on how to use the diagnostic tools available currently to diagnosis autism?

      Oh yeah, that’s right. Because I’m delusional.

      So that explains it. Thanks for cluing me in, Raj.

    • siliconmom

      Sorry, in my last diatribe, I meant to say that “No, there is no one single gene to blame,”. Forgive me, I’m delusional after all.

    • Dedj

      I would like to urge RAJ to provide a single example of a ‘Delusional Mother’, but I have no faith in his/her ability to provide one so I won’t.

      The nearest I’ve come to a ‘Delusional Mother’ was one who denied her (40 year old) daughter had autism. I’ve not met a mother with an autistic child (including mothers with autism) who has denied the need for any treatment at all.

    • Kristina Chew, PhD

      Thank you all (all) and especial thanks to Dr. Fitzpatrick for a really insightful essay.

      McCarthy has something of a……perilous? course ahead of her, as far her writing about “recovery” from autism and her child, who has placed in the limelight: What will she maintain or not?

    • RAJ

      “Raj – I disagree with your statements about autism not being genetic. First, there have been several studies linking genes to autism. No, there is one single gene to blame, but the evidence suggests a genetic basis for this disorder. If you read through past posts on this very website”

      I have and have commented on these loose associations. The majority are mental retardation genetic disorders with a small subgroup possessing enough isolated secondary symtoms to qualify for an ASD diagnosis. Child pychiatrists have never been able to differentiate mental retardation from autitim.

      Name onegene that ’causes’ autism and I ‘ll be glad to explain. Calling some mothers ‘Delusional Mothers’ is probably too harsh, but so is the absolute disgraceful insults hurled at any mothers who aren’t part of the neurodiversity crowd.

    • Storkdok

      I find it ironic that RAJ has confirmed the thesis of Dr. Fitzpatrick’s article, and his book.

      Mr. Doherty, may I assume you are directing the “shame on you” towards RAJ, who is the only person who name called here?

    • Storkdok

      For those of you who have not followed Dr. Fitzpatrick’s writing over the years, you can find them at spiked:

      Another father and physician who has written revealing articles is James Laidler. His article on “Through the Looking Glass: My Involvement With Autism Quackery” is a good read. You can find here

    • Ed


      I have to agree with the following points.

      1. There is a genetic factor involved in autism. Unfortunately, gene chasers are not likely to have any useful results any time soon.
      2. There is an environmental factor. I am not one who believes that since modern medicine has repeatedly “proven” that there is no link between vaccines and autism, there is no epidemic and therefore, the environmental factor is the change in diagnoses. I saw the uptick when we were still trying to figure out what happened. The genetics says that if the cause of the uptick is diagnoses, then I will see kids like my son, David, and like Charlie among my cousins, my siblings, my uncles and my aunts and among my wife’s relatives. Kids that are not just strange like what you could label and ASD, but autistic just did not exist when I grew up. Now they are ubiquitous. There is an environmental factor and it does not lie with the diagnosticians.
      3. While I cannot speak about other autistics, I can speak about my son. He has had ritualistic behaviors, head banging, asocial behavior, hypersensitivity in his ears (about 20 dB of it), aphasia, echolalia, perseverative behavior. He has suffered skill losses in spelling, a complete wipeout in math and a loss of ability to hold a pencil. Now he drives and is enrolled in college taking calculus III, English, and Physics (with calculus). If anyone thinks that this sea change in him could have occurred without medical intervention, he is sadly mistaken.
      4. My son is still autistic and I accept him as he is. But as his parent, I am responsible, to the best of my ability, to raise him to be self sufficient. His autistic behavior stood in the way of that, therefore I helped him to overcome it. Laissez-faire is not in my lexicon.
      5. ABA and other behavior treatments have taken autism about as far as it can go. It is time for the medical community to quit worrying about whether vaccines cause autism and do research with meaningful results.

    • Emily

      Doherty…you’re gonna have to clarify. What? Attacks on whom about what?

    • Kristina Chew, PhD

      Sometimes I think one problem is that not everyone is very careful to define what they mean by “environment”—-when some scientists refer to autism as being caused by a combination of “genes and the environment,” it’s sometimes the human environment that is meant.

    • Ed


      The environment is what we humans make of it. And no, I do not mean anything having to do with diagnostics

    • Dedj

      I never saw people with autism at school either, yet the autism service I work for now is full with adults my own age (30+) and older, including several from my home town.

      It’s also full of people who have the same problems a few people at school had, yet the people at school rarely had a diagnosis, and ‘special ed.’ at that time was technically little better than exclusion. Several people in my year, who had classic signs of various disorders only got thier diagnosis in adulthood, often only after trying adult education, or through occupational health.

      I’m not aware of any reason why you would have seen such people at school, assuming they weren’t ‘streamlined’ , and be mentally equipped to have recognised them, so your claim of ‘having seen it personally’ isn’t really that impressive and is actually to be expected if the socio-cultural explanation is correct.

      I’m not sure where you’re going with the ‘just strange’ comment, as ASD’s like aspergers are more richer and more complex than being ‘just strange’.

    • Emily

      Kristina, you are correct. “Environment” doesn’t necessarily or even generally mean “stuff outside the person.” It can also mean something as near as the intranuclear environment of the cell, including the behavior of nonDNA or non-protein molecules (such as methyl or acetyl groups, microRNAs–which are in the cytoplasm). It is not just “What we humans make of it.” It is also very much what nature makes of it. And that’s one reason the “nature vs. nurture” dichotomy is such a false dichotomy. As I’ve said here repeatedly, no gene exists alone. It is under the influence of factors ranging from noncoding regions of DNA, molecular markers active in epigenesis, a missignaling protein, or a wash of organism-produced signaling molecules. Some of these “environmental” effects that act on genes are, in fact, heritable, yet they are not “genetic.” We are increasingly finding that “nurture” IS “nature.”

    • ASDmomNC

      “4. My son is still autistic and I accept him as he is. But as his parent, I am responsible, to the best of my ability, to raise him to be self sufficient. His autistic behavior stood in the way of that, therefore I helped him to overcome it. Laissez-faire is not in my lexicon.” ~ Ed

      You misunderstand me, Ed. Accepting my son as he is, autism and all does not mean a laissez-faire attitude towards helping him be as comfortable and functional as possible. For our family, it means that we help my son by giving him ST so he can learn to effectively communicate his needs, OT so he can effectively manage his sensory issues, TEACCH so he can learn how to function within a school classroom and the world at large, and a self contained classroom so he can simply LEARN.

      To me, acceptance means that I help him be the best he can be, as he is. It means I don’t try to exorcise the autism “demon” out of him in the name of “cure” or “recovery.” Rather, I help him find his way in this world and maximize his gifts without trying to stamp out part of his personality (autistic) in the process. Does that make sense?

      Also, Harold, the only ones name calling is the one calling other parents “delusional.” Because someone disagrees with you is far from grounds to declare “shame on you.”

    • Tara

      I just might be that “sadly mistaken” one…

      My own son fit pretty much the same laundry list of symptoms as Ed’s son, minus academic skills regression. 8 years later he is not only fully verbal but also bilingual and doing extremely well academically and reasonably well socially (meaning that he will never be the social butterfly, but he can certainly interact with others and be self-sufficient). It is too early for college but I can reasonably assume that he’ll be able to take calculus, English and physics when the time comes.

      No ABA, no biomed of any sort. Some ST and OT and what would presumably pass as very watered down Floortime/DIR but at the time I have seen that as simply “parenting”. I am not going to claim that this is typical outcome, but others should not claim it can’t happen without medical intervention either…

    • Ed


      I was not speaking about all autistics. I was speaking about my son. My son’s sea change started when he was 13. Before that I was telling him that there would be no way I could ever allow him to drive. There was no way at the time to think that he would ever attend college. It took medical intervention to effect the change.

    • Chrisd

      I haven’t been by for a while but I am so glad I did today.

      I love your post. I agree with what you have to say.

      Kristina, thank you for being a voice in our community. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

    • siliconmom

      ASDmomNC – well said.

      “Rather, I help him find his way in this world and maximize his gifts without trying to stamp out part of his personality (autistic) in the process. Does that make sense?”

      Perfectly. It’s called parenting, and it’s a perspective I hope and feel everyone who has children, NT or Special Needs or whatever, would and should have.

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