Refrigerator Mothers

The medical establishment's incorrect assessment that autism was the result of poor mothering left a generation of women with permanent scars.

Film Signature Image
Premiere Date
July 16, 2002
60 minutes
Funding Initiative
Open Call
  • Award laurels-r Created with Sketch.
    2002 Sedona International Film Festival-Best Documentary
  • Award laurels-r Created with Sketch.
    2002 SFFilm Festival-Certificate of Merit, Society and Culture
  • Award laurels-r Created with Sketch.
    2002 Central Florida Film Festival-Documentary Grand Jury Award
  • Award laurels-r Created with Sketch.
    2002 Superfest-Achievement Award
  • Producer

    David E. Simpson

    David E. Simpson has crafted award-winning films for 25 years. As a producer, director and editor, he plies his trade in the belief that a well-told story can move viewers’ hearts and minds about crucial, human issues. Based in Chicago, Simpson began making films at age 13, when he received a camera as a gift. He experimented with different kinds of Show more storytelling, settling on the documentary format. Simpson co-produced and directed the award-winning When Billy Broke His Head, a documentary about disability culture, and co-produced and edited Forgiving Dr. Mengele, a film about an Auschwitz survivor’s controversial campaign of forgiveness, which also garnered numerous awards. Simpson directed Refrigerator Mothers, a film about a generation of mothers who raised autistic children under the shadow of professionally promoted mother-blame. The film won top honors at a number of film festivals and aired on PBS. When not producing and directing his own work, Simpson edits long-form documentaries. His credits include Terra Ingcognito: Mapping Stem Cell Research and The New Americans, both produced by Kartemquin Films for Independent Lens. Simpson has also edited the Emmy-nominated Mysterious Crash of Flight 201 for NOVA and other award-winning television programs. Show less


    J.J. Hanley


    Gordon Quinn

    Artistic Director and founding member of Kartemquin Films, 2007 recipient of the MacArthur award for Creative and Effective Institutions, Gordon Quinn has been making documentaries for more than 40 years. His producing credits include such award-winning and highly acclaimed films as Hoop Dreams; Vietnam, Long Time Coming; Golub; 5 Girls; Refrigerator Mothers; Stevie, Show more for which he won the Cinematography Award at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival; and The New Americans (for which h also directed the Palestinian segment). Most recently, Quinn executive produced Mapping Stem Cell Research: Terra Incognita; At The Death House Door; Milking the Rhino; In the Family; and Typeface, as well as directing a film on delayed posttraumatic stress syndrome, Prisoner of Her Past. Show less

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    The Film

    From the 1950s through the '70s, the medical establishment thought it had found the root cause of autism: poor mothering. Doctors presumed that the bizarre behaviors of autistic children stemmed from their mothers' emotional frigidity. Now we know that autism is a brain disorder. But for a generation of women, branded as cold "refrigerator mothers," the damage had been done.