Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Mercury: This Generation's Refrigerator Mother

I've been thinking about why we do what we do. I can't speak for all pro-neurodiversity parents and autistics out there, but I imagine they have similar concerns. I feel we need to fight for our right and our children's right to not be labeled "inferior", "diseased", "brain damaged", or "mercury poisoned". I don't do this for myself, though that's an added bonus.

And it helps to have the facts on our side.

It may seem surprising that mercury parents must share some of these goals, except their approach is substantially different. Unfortunately, it's an approach based on a fantasy: That their children are perfectly typical in reality, were it not for a poison put in them by a malevolent entity; once the poison is removed, an autistic child regains perfect normality, and none of the issues I listed will be issues anymore. They will just be someone else's issues. These parents validate one another in order to cling to this fantasy with all they've got, even if that means concocting conspiracy theories to explain away a flood of facts and information that make their position untenable at best.

This is not that different to a fantasy from a different generation: That an autistic child is perfectly typical in reality, were it not for uncaring parents, particularly mothers who have not bonded properly with their children. Once the parents are removed, the child is able to recover, resolving all the issues I listed.

I wonder, though, what the relative merit of the mercury theory vs. the refrigerator mother theory is. Neither of these theories have any solid scientific grounding, and neither has been conclusively shown to be false (though I'd disagree on that about mercury). Refrigerator mother fell out of favor when it was discovered that autism is very heritable. But then why did the mercury theory take its place, considering that both are environmentally-based theories?

What are their similarities?

  • They are both environmental theories.
  • They both rely on the notion that someone is to blame.
  • They both largely deny heritiability, which incidentally is the only well known aspect of autism causality.
  • They are largely incompatible with neurobiological differences in autistics.
  • They are largely incompatible with any cognitive advantages of autism.
  • They lack any real scientific backing.
  • They are supported by scientists of dubious integrity.
  • They both assume that autism can't be anything but pathological.
  • And last but not least, both theories are simply wrong.

More importantly, what is the impact of each of these theories? In the generation that preceded us, it was the mothers of autistic children who were impacted the most. It is hard to imagine what they must have gone through.

But this generation is telling autistic children that their brains have been poisoned, and in some notable cases they are being told that their brains are literally "rotting". There are some who call them "diseased", "train wrecks", "mad child", "a plague", "worse than cancer", and so on. I seldom hear of mercury parents who are appalled by their children being referred to in this manner. I can only assume they don't mind and probably agree. And don't think for a moment that because a child can't speak, that child is unable to grasp what's going on.

Imagine what it is like to grow up thinking that your brain does not and cannot function properly because it's broken and poisoned; that whatever gifts you do have occur in spite of who you are, not because of it; that you are a burden to civilization, despite the fact that without your traits there would be no civilization to consider; that you are not worthy of being considered human; that if it were possible to eliminate all people like you, this would be done without a second thought.

Ten or twenty years from now, the mercury hypothesis will be remembered as the Refrigerator Mother of our generation, tossed in the garbage can of discarded theories along with so many others in the field of autism. Let's just hope that the pseudo-experts of the next generation can do better when they come up with new environmental theories that try to deny heritability, because at the moment the quality of such theories appears to be in decline.


  1. Great analogy Joseph,
    I wonder if an important distinction can be drawn through the number of parents who willingly embrace(d) the two theories. I think the mercury parents are in the minority but it must be a larger minority than the parents who were willing to accept or even embrace the refrigerator mother theory.

    To hear the mercury hypothesis presented by other, apparently intelligent and knowledgeable, parents can be very persuasive. Even more so when you are new to the world of autism and you've found an ear along with a voice.

  2. That's simply because refrigerator mother blames the parents. Mercury blames someone else. Other than that, there's no difference in scientific merit between the theories.

  3. Joe;
    Were any kids of refrigerator mother's cured?
    Were any kids cured by removing the mercury?

  4. Joe;
    Were any kids of refrigerator mother's cured?
    Were any kids cured by removing the mercury?

    I believe Dr. Bettleheim claimed an 80% cure rate with parentdectomy. That's probably quite a bit better than what is claimed with Chelation - which incidentally is about the same as Placebo can do.

  5. I am a parent of a 8-month-old and a 4-year-old. I am currently on the fence about whether or not I should continue with their current vaccine schedule. I have been trying to find non-emotional, scientific findings for causal relationships between genetic predispositions to Autism and the effect of the introduction of Thermosol or Mercury (found in vaccines) to such children. My children have not been diagnosed with Autism but there are other neurologic disorders in my family such as ADHD that I am afraid could lead them to such a predisposition. I am tired of the sensational media hype on this issue for either side and am looking for some intelligent, sound, viable information on this topic. Does anyone know of any?

  6. Anonymous, FWIW, I got here from this page:


    It has a lot of good links.

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