Dispelling Common Autism Myths – Refrigerator Mothers, Intelligence Levels, Empathy, and Language

In the article “Prevalence of Parent-Reported Diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder Among Children in the US”, which appeared in the October 5, 2009 issue of Pediatrics, researchers confirmed that the autism prevalence rate in the U.S. has gone from 1 in 150 children to approximately 1 in 100 children. Despite this increased incidence rate, age-old myths about autism continue to prevail. Parents of children on the autism spectrum, autistic individuals themselves, and professionals that work in autism-related specialties are all working to dispel common autism myths.

Unfortunately, many of these myths, some even decades old, persist. When a parent of a child that has been recently diagnosed with autism tells a friend of her child’s diagnosis, she may find herself face-to-face with one of these myths. It is important that those in the autism community actively work to dispel these myths on a daily basis.

Refrigerator Mothers
In the 1950s, the phrase “refrigerator mothers” was used to describe mothers of children with autism. It was thought that their cold and emotionless demeanor was the reason for their child’s behavior. Unfortunately, not much was known about autism during this time and the disorder wasn’t even a unique diagnostic condition in the DSM.

Thankfully, research has revealed that a mother’s parenting style was not to blame for her child’s autistic behavior. Unfortunately, for many mothers, this revelation came too late and only after much self-blame.

Autism and Intelligence Levels
Another frequently referenced myth about individuals with autism is that they all experience cognitive deficits. However, there is not a consistent relationship between autism and intelligence levels. While a portion of individuals on the autism spectrum may have some level of cognitive disability (also called mental retardation), it is not true of all individuals on the spectrum.

Not only do intelligence levels vary among individuals on the autism spectrum, a person’s intelligence level is not included in the autism diagnostic criteria. So while some individuals with autism may also have a cognitive disability, this is not a statement that can be attributed to the entire autistic population.

Individuals with Autism Lack Empathy
The stereotypical individual with autism is an uncaring and unfeeling person that has no capability of feeling empathy. Just as in the typical population, there are some individuals who have problems with empathy and others who are able to be genuinely empathetic.

Not everyone on the autism spectrum can show feelings of empathy but this is also the case for individuals not on the autism spectrum. Many autistic individuals are fully capable of showing empathy but may do so in a way that is unexpected to the unknowing bystander.

Everyone with Autism is Nonverbal
Surprisingly enough, not everyone with autism is non-verbal. Language skills vary, even among the most severely affected. While some individuals with autism are completely nonverbal, others are able to take advantage of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices to communicate with others.

This list of common autism myths is by no means comprehensive; however, these are some of the more popular myths. As the autism prevalence rates continue to rise, it is important for society to begin to understand the condition better and work at dispelling these common autism myths.

This article was originally published on Suite101.com.

About Melissa

Melissa is the mother of two children on the autism spectrum and strives to provide information about all aspects of autism through her blog, The Autism Education Site. Follow Melissa on Twitter. Like me on Facebook.

© Melissa Hincha-Ownby and The Autism Education Site, 2008-2014.


  1. In every generation there seems to be yet another so-called expert that blames mothers for autism. The new theory is generally a variant of the same old recycled theory that blames poor ole mom. The most famous person to champion the term “Refrigerator Mother” was Bruno Bettleheim. The theory was that autism was caused by an emotional frigidity of the mother. As a mother who has been in the autism wars for more than 20 years, I say it’s time to clarify a few things to these luddites who always have the trappings of legitimacy, with MDs and Ph.D.s behind their names, exploiting their credentials to propagate their nonsense.

    From Bettelheim in the 1950s to the latest incarnation of MDs who flog this junk using theories that have no data, there are a few things that must be emphasized. First, when a child from birth ignores everyone’s presence, cries incessantly and is up all night for years on end, to the point where the mother is barely functioning, the child’s autism is the CAUSE of the mother’s condition, not the other way around! In other words, the mother’s stress or depression does not cause autism… autism causes maternal stress and depression. Put simply, these professionals do not understand that the causal arrow goes the other way! You’d think that after a decade of post-secondary education, these so-called experts would have figured that out, but apparently not.

    Also, before doctors and researchers venture into the murky waters of autism, I would suggest they read a few peer-reviewed journal articles that have been written in the last decade, and also walk a block, not a mile, in the shoes of a mother of an untreated child with autism.

    Second, a theory is useless without any data supporting it. Put simply, show us the data, or put a sock in it! Since these big thinkers seem happy to posit theories that they have no plans to test and are, therefore, perennially without data to support them, let me have a go, and posit one of my own. Doctors and researchers with little talent and less integrity, tend to gravitate to fields where there is no known cause and no known cure – like autism. That way, B.S. can be purveyed with impunity, since few folks actually expect rigorous scientific standards of conduct (i.e., proper theory construction, hypothesis development, experimental design, testing, data collection, statistical analyses, presentation of results, and interpretation). In other words, where autism is concerned, it’s still the wild west of science. However, the good news is that as we learn more about the true neurobiology of autism, these ignorant pretenders will be relegated to the Flat Earth Society where they belong.


  1. […] awareness about autism spectrum disorders has also increased. Unfortunately, there are still some common autism myths that people think are […]