Refrigerator Moms and Geeky Dads

In the 1960s, some ‘experts’ blamed mothers of autistic children for causing their child’s autism. These experts accused mothers of being cold, distant, and unloving of their children and that their detachment lead to their childrens’ withdrawl. Fortunately, I know of no one that is currently advocating the unloving mother theory as the cause of autism.

Recent writings have commented that fathers of children with autism often have a set of personality characteristics that can be classified as ‘geeky’. This was articulated particularly well by Steve Silberman in an article published in Wired Magazine a few years ago. My wife and I first recognized that our middle child had Asperger’s Syndrome after reading this article.

Citing the personality characteristics of parents of autistic children is not new. Leo Kanner’s first article on autism cites personality characteristics in some of the fathers that sound geeky to me. It’s is generally accepted that family genetics play a role in neurological characteristics. It’s also generally accepted that children learn many behaviors from their parents.

Does this mean that parents are the cause of autism in their children after all? Certainly not! However, it seems to me that we parents may have a unique advantage in helping our children learn how to deal with some of the characteristics of autism. We may have some of the same genetic characteristics, to a greater or lesser degree, as our autistic children. We also may demonstrate behaviors that are similar, in either appearance or function, to those of our children.

Shortly after my son was formally diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, I told him that I “have a little bit of Asperger’s” myself. It was my way of letting him know that he wasn’t alone and that I deal with some of the same issues. I continue to use my “little bit of Asperger’s” as a starting point in helping him whenever I can.

Here are some things that I think we parents can do to identify and take advantage of similarities we may have with our autistic children.

  • Identify our own personality characteristics that are autistic, even if they are only slightly so. Examine these characteristics, how long we’ve had them, and how they affect us. Once we understand the characteristics, identify how we display them to others. For example, I’ve always been somewhat introverted. I know that I tend to avoid small talk and that this can appear to others as being unfriendly. I can easily relate this to my sons’ challenges with reaching out to others.
  • Identify any negative behaviors that we model for our child. Do we become frustrated and angry about unexpected change? As an example, I’ve learned that my sarcastic comments about other drivers can lead to my son to perseverating on the fact that others are ‘breaking the rules’. I try to use such instances as a starting point to initiate change for myself. I let my boys know that I’m trying to make the change so they can observe the results. Every time I slip up in my efforts, I have an opportunity to talk with them about what I want to do better.
  • Identify our own positive behaviors that can help our child. Our children cotinually use us as models for behavior. These behaviors will be particulaly powerful models if they relate to situations they also face. If I can ignore a driver that cuts me off, perhaps my son will learn to be flexible when he feels someone has cut line at school.

I’d be exaggerating if I said that these tips have made everything different. They haven’t, but they have some things better and they feel like a very healthy foundation upon which I will continue to build. I also continue to learn a lot about myself and I always consider that a good thing.

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5 Responses to Refrigerator Moms and Geeky Dads

  1. Bridget says:

    Thanks! DH recently commented that our son inherited more extreme versions of traits we have – e.g., my sensory issues, and DH’s love of sorting, numbers, etc.
    I do think that helps us to help him. It is great to hear something positive from another parent….

  2. bonni says:

    My husband is very geeky, and I’m defintely on the “eccentric” end of the “normal” spectrum. As a child, I had traits that were very pronounced, particularly a complete and utter understanding of social behaviors, etc. (I’ve overcome most of that, but social situations still tend to exhaust me).

    There are a number of others in the family who have decidedly Aspie traits, in previous generations and the current one, which leads me to believe that there is some sort of genetic link (although I don’t pretend to know what it is; it’s probably a combination of things).

    Because of my own “differentness”, I really do feel that I have some better understanding of my daughter’s issues than maybe more neurotypical parents have. I can identify with being “in your own world” and being more interested in what you’re doing and thinking than in what you “should” be doing or thinking, just to name a couple of traits.

    I also happen to believe that “different” is not equal to “bad”, and while I certainly want to help my daughter overcome the issues that are problematic (the fact that she has very limited communication, for example), I know for certain that different is just different, and that sometimes, different is GOOD.

    As my very geeky husband notes, it’s only a problem if it’s a problem. We work on the problems, and the rest, well, some people just aren’t like everyone else.

    One final thought is that my husband is a programmer and works in a very geeky environment. When he takes time off to attend some sort of thing for/with our daughter (doctor’s appointments, various tests, etc.), he arranges it with his boss, who is most definitely an Aspie (probably undiagnosed, but absolutely all the signs are there). His boss, upon hearing that our daughter is autistic, said, “Well, you know, probably most of the people on this floor have some degree of autism,” and he’s almost certainly right.

  3. Valerie Harlow says:

    I am eccentric AND neurotic! My husband is a “geek” too. Hello Bonni! Nice to know I am not the only eccentric around! I am sure you are not all that eccentric. I do not enjoy social situations and they leave me feeling utterly exhausted! Like your husband Bonni, my husband is a programmer too. He says that most of the people he works with are “geeky” and as you probably know, Microsoft Corp is full of “geeky” types, just look at Bill Gates!

    Okay, here is the thing, our son has been diagnosed with MANY things throughout the years, beginning at age 5 by some “quack” excuse of a so-called doctor, with Attention Defecit Hyperactivity Disorder, Anger Defiance, Oppositional Defiance, blah blah blah…FINALLY when he was 11 he was PROPERLY tested thoroughly by an Occupational Therapist for over a month long series of many tests, and he said “What! Did these people never conduct this test nor that test! Your child has been treated for this with what drugs? Could they not see that the drugs were not working at all? Did they not listen to you when you complained about the side-effects and lack of progress or help? Your son is NOT ADHD nor any of those things. He has a form of autism, Asberger’s Disorder along with Central Auditory Processing Disorder and anxiety. He could also benefit from vision therapy as I noticed the way he visualizes things in spacial testing his eyes tend to be working differently.”

    So, with his assessments and findings we also had an Educational Analyst work with the school to find an appropriate educational program and classroom setting that would work best for our son. With the visual therapy and aides things began to improve dramatically for our son and throughout his schooling from his Home School setting at the 6th grade level we had to get him into for reason I will not discuss here, into his private school, and he even began learning socialization and conversational techniques. The visual therapy proved remarkable as well and his writing and work improved.

    So with the diagnosis, it is still hard to place our son into just “one category” as like many of us, he has a multitude of issues but now that he is getting older, 17 now, is coming along quite well with the many techniques available to him and the teachers that teach.

    Bonni, your husband sounds like my husband exactly! He says the same thing, “As my very geeky husband notes, it’s only a problem if it’s a problem. We work on the problems, and the rest, well, some people just aren’t like everyone else.”

    And also, identifying myself and how I have in the past and even now deal with certain social situations has helped me to understand my son’s social anxieties. My husband too, dislikes social gatherings. They leave him feeling utterly drained as they do I.

    We work on the “Reward” program as it has proven most successful in helping our son realize that, “when he bahaves appropriately he gets not only rewards but praise and feels good about himself” Whatever we do, there is so much to learn. The learning truly never ends, which is one reason I am glad to have found this website, so thank you to the creator/s of this wonderfully informative place for information and sharing of ideas.

  4. Anne says:

    Sorry, there are still people and agencies out there who subscribe to the “Refrigerator Mom” theory. As late as 1999/2000, the Calgary office of Rockyview Child and Family Services gave me that label, along with the possibility that I was either Bi-polar or Munchhausen by Proxy. My 12 yr old son was diagnosed with Asperger’s 3 yrs ago, but prior to that his behaviours were all my fault, due to my neglect and inconsistent, uncaring behaviour towards him. I believe I have a little bit of Asperger’s myself, but my doctor says I’m simply suffering from high anxiety. And really who wouldn’t be after dealing with Social Services for the last 6 years. Thank you for letting me vent. Anne

  5. Shawn says:


    I’m happy to let you vent! We all need it sometimes.

    It’s sad, but not surprising, that there are still people trying to simplify autism to the degree that blame is laid at the footsteps of parents. I certainly believe that we may share some of the personality traits that we see in our children but it’s ridiculous to say that our personality traits are the sole (or even primary) factor in or children’s development. It’s not that simple.

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