A Mother’s First Reponse to the “Maternal Sensitivity” Study

Filed Under (Acceptance, autism, Communication, Discrimination) by Estee on 28-02-2010

This study sent a little shiver through my body. Remember the story of the big bad “Refrigerater Mother?” She was the mother who was blamed for causing autism in her child in the 1960’s. Many mothers during that period were tormented for being pushed to believe they were the cause of their child’s autism. I wonder if the legend survives. From a peripheral read of the following study, this mom had a maternal “first response:”

A new study by researchers from the University of Miami shows that maternal sensitivity may influence language development among children who go on to develop autism. Although parenting styles are not considered as a cause for autism, this report examines how early parenting can promote resiliency in this population. The study entitled, “A Pilot Study of Maternal Sensitivity in the Context of Emergent Autism,” is published online this month and will appear in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

I am not commenting on how the study was conducted nor the value of “resiliency.” I am commenting on the inference. I am a sensitive mother. Some say I’m pretty good at mothering. I’m extremely sensitive to my son, and he is non verbal. He can manage a word or phrase now and again, but at nearly eight years of age, it’s pretty difficult. I engaged Adam. I did everything (and still do everything) I can think of. He is a wonderful child who is anxious and has some sleep issues. I’m not sure I could have been even more sensitive than I was to make him more resilient. While he’s pretty good at moving around the community, going to school (with an aide), traveling, he does have extremely difficult days too and we are going through some of them RIGHT NOW during a major transition in our lives. Because of Adam I continue to grow and learn how to work with him, and there is always something new for me to learn.

With this study, I fail to see an acknowledgment (in the links I could find tonight, I have to qualify this) that for many autistic individuals the inability to speak fluently, or at all, is neurological, not just dependent on the sensitive mother. The term “re-wiring” is used a lot for individuals with brain injury and just as often by gurus selling therapies for curing autism. I will never argue that, as parents, we all want to try and help our children in a world that is often confusing and frustrating for them. Yet, I also wonder if teaching autistic children how to communicate is something very different than re-wiring, for that implies that we are fixing something to make it better. Adam communicates all the time. Like the two-year-old who may have warbled speech indecipherable to many but the parent, some of us close to Adam know what he is communicating — and quite boldly. Perhaps we might consider that working with autistic children is like figuring out the intricate wiring that already exists. Like the ill-suited American plug to the European outlet, maybe we aren’t meant to re-wire the autistic brain into a neurotypical one.

“In this study, maternal sensitivity (and primarily, sensitive structuring) was more predictive of language growth among toddlers developing autism than among children who did not go on to an autism diagnosis. One possible explanation is that children with autism may be more dependent on their environment to learn certain skills that seem to come more naturally to other children.”

I would agree that our children need our support, and this does take extra effort on our part.

“Parenting may matter even more for children with developmental problems such as autism because certain things that tend to develop easily in children with typical neurological development, like social communication, don’t come as naturally for kids with autism, so these skills need to be taught,” says Jason K. Baker, a postdoctoral fellow at the Waisman Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison, who conducted the study with Messinger while at UM.”

I don’t disagree with the idea that autistic children require more support and accommodation in a confusing environment, and that “being sensitive” is especially important. Many of this know this. I tend to see this as part of the autism and NT (neurotypical) equation, for the key is that we as parents learn how our children learn and how they see the world. I don’t see it as a tugging into “our world,” but a sharing. It’s the manner in which we, as parents, figure out how to be with the child who is already with us, with challenges in a world that has such difficulty understanding autism, but also with many strengths and attributes. Acceptance is a daily exercise and the idea will challenge us day in and day out — some days (and nights) more than others. Every day Adam works so hard to accept me, to accept this world and the people around him, and I wonder if that’s all we seem to ask him to do. The least we can do is to accommodate him and what he needs and wants from this world.

This article ends with a shallow disclaimer: “We know that parenting doesn’t cause autism. The message here is that parents can make a difference in helping their children fight against autism.” Okay, it doesn’t cause autism, but the implication is that the sensitive mother can improve language acquisition and resiliency skills. The results may have been one hundred percent true according to the study design, but the key piece of accepting autism is missing.

While it is certainly advantageous to have a sensitive parent to ANY child, I would hate to think that one might judge me as being an insensitive one if my son is not able to speak. Further, the focus on mothers specifically has reminded me of times I thought had long gone by. Maybe the Refrigerator Mother still lurks in the dark recesses of some minds. To conclude from my peripheral read and no reading of scientific critique on how the study was conducted, I sniff not only an omission or two, but a little bias.


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About Me


I’m a PhD candidate at York University, Critical Disability Studies, with a multi-disciplinary background in the arts as a curator and writer. I am the Founder of The Autism Acceptance Project (www.taaproject.com), and an enamoured mother of my only son who lives with the autism label. I like to write about our journey, critical issues regarding autism in the area of human rights, law, and social justice, as well as reflexive practices in (auto)ethnographic writing about autism.