Autism: Origins Unknown, but Women Still Get the Blame

Taken from the November/December 2012 issue of The Women's Health Activist Newsletter.

The current medical view is that many interacting genes play a role in autism spectrum disorders (ASD), possibly in concert with environmental factors. Over the years, many alternative theories have been proposed outside of the literature on reputable scientific research. Probably the most well-known is the now-discredited vaccine theory,ii which suggested that immunizing children — especially with the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine —caused autism. Although the MMR theory is now known to have been based on fraudulent (and since retracted) research,iii it’s caused parents a lot of confusion and anxiety over the last few decades.iv

As the lack of evidence for an association between vaccines and ASD became apparent, blame for the condition shifted to alternative (but still vaccine-related) causes, such as the number and/or timing of vaccines. Now, with strong evidence that there is no demonstrable link between vaccines (on any schedule) and ASD,v,viother targets are emerging. These include the idea that prenatal ultrasoundsvii or maternal obesity may contribute to autism.viiiThese theories have one thing in common: the idea that parents — specifically mothers — are to blame for their children’s ASD. (The latter is a double-whammy of mom-blaming and fat-shaming!)

It’s problematic on its own that ASD and other intellectual disabilities are treated as warranting blame — as though someone is “at fault” for the very existence of individuals with these conditions. The problem is further compounded by the persistence of blame based on stereotypical gender roles, which focus ASD’s cause primarily on women’s actions and “choices”, such as having an ultrasound or being overweight. It’s also worth nothing that, while both parents can make decisions about their children’s health care, in reality, mothers still primarily assume the role of health care decision-maker. So even the earlier vaccine theories were also rooted in blaming women’s behaviors.

Blaming moms for autism is nothing new. In the mid-20th century, the concept of the “refrigerator mother” held that mothers’ “coldness” and emotional distance caused their children’s autism. The idea was promoted by psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, whose 1967 book, The Empty Fortress, described autism as a psychological disorder that was heavily influenced by parents’ actionsix (a 2004 documentary about the theory clearly illustrates the enormous pain this blame caused both mothers and their familiesx). Although psychologists also mentioned fathers’ roles, the responsibility for emotional warmness was assigned primarily to mothers.

Nowadays, we know better. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke notes, “The theory that parental practices are responsible for ASD has long been disproved.”xi But, it is worth remembering this history to highlight how pervasive mother-blaming has been in the past. Now, sadly, explicit mother-blaming has shifted to implicit mother-blaming. The latter is less likely to be challenged as misogynistic, but continues to identify women’s actions as potential causes for ASD.

There’s an argument to be made that the focus on vaccines, ultrasounds, diet, emotions, etc. isn’t really about blaming women, and that those things may apply equally to fathers. But, in reality, persistent stereotypes about women and care-giving still exist; just look at advertising to see which parent is still expected to be responsible for care-giving and decision-making. (After all, "choosy moms choose Jif!") ASD blame theories tend not to focus on more stereotypically male/paternal activities. While an occasional story may suggest that a father’s age might contribute to ASD, it is extremely unusual for the condition to be ascribed to dads’ actions, like focusing on their careers or being less emotionally engaged with their children.

A stark example of explicit women-blaming is a 2011 article in the Daily Mail, which asked: “Is the changing role of women in our society behind the rise in autism in the past 30 years?xii The article explored the notion that “when people with strongly ‘systemising’ personalities — the sort of people who become engineers, surgeons, computer experts and who shine in some aspects of business — marry each other and produce children, the effects of this kind of ‘male brain’ are genetically magnified, increasing the chances of producing an autistic child — a child with…an ‘extreme male brain’.” The article posited that such successful parents may be more likely to have a child with ASD, but focused exclusively on mother’s roles. (It goes without saying, there’s a lack of substantial evidence for this theory.)

The London Feminist neatly skewers the “professional women cause autism” argument’s sexism: “There are two implications: one is that women are ‘becoming’ male-brained as a result of widened opportunities, as though clever women didn’t always exist, and the second is that if we had a shred of humanity we’d sacrifice our careers for the good of our unborn children lest they get the autism cooties. Pah.”xiii

ASD is a challenging condition and it’s natural to seek a specific cause for it. Unfortunately, the attention paid to the mother-linked “causes” simply allows public focus and media attention to focus on decisions about vaccination, diet, and ultrasounds — rather than on the much-needed work to effectively support individuals with ASD across their lifespan.

As one writer on ASD’s history concluded: “Blame is no substitute for genuine understanding of the causes (no doubt more than one) of autism. However gratifying it may be to point the finger, such actions do not reveal solutions that can help children and families. We can hope for and work on improved communication to replace blaming, but it may be that if we don't understand the history of this problem, we will be condemned to repeat it.”xiv

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