Autism Caused by Depression of Mothers?

There’s a new theory for the autism epidemic that hearkens back to the “refrigerator mother” theory that autism is caused by cold, withholding mothers. The Albany Times Union reports that Dr. Gabor Mate believes that parental stress, especially the mother’s, causes developmental disabilities. The author of four books that explore the connection of mind, body and stress, Mate asserts that, " The electrical circuitry of a child’s brain is programmed by the mother’s emotional state."

Research does, in fact suggest that childhood trauma influences a child’s developmental success, affecting both their mental and physical outcomes well into adulthood. Careful not to fault individual parenting, Mate points to the modern society’s family structure of overworked parents and overbooked kids as an indication that the “it takes a village to raise a child” model is extinct, leaving troubled kids who are then medicated when they have problems. The doctor goes on to offer tips about effective parenting, like “Don’t parent when you are feeling hostile. Wait for your heart to open up” and “Catch your children ‘being good’ and give them positive attention.” It’s a bit disingenuous to not blame poor parenting, then proceed to give parenting tips that are less than a revelation.

Dr. Mate concedes that he has no proof for his theory of rising autism (ADD and obesity as well), “but nothing else makes sense”.

With all due respect, many other things make sense as factors in the rise of autism — environment toxins triggering genetic propensities for instance. I guess in this case, a mother’s depression would count as an environmental toxin, but it’s hard to swallow the notion that alone causes autism. I know plenty of parents, myself included, who have sacrificed a great deal to be present for our children and the kids were still on the spectrum. Were we too stressed out, too depressed in the midst of our efforts? Geez, we’re all just doing the best we can. 

Dr. Mate could make his useful points without going overboard. Parents are going to end up depressed because they’re depressed, thinking they are putting their child at risk for autism. Dr. Mate could well end up inducing the stress he claims to want to alleviate.

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36 Responses to Autism Caused by Depression of Mothers?

  1. I like your final statement the best. I think that this researcher would do well to put his energy elsewhere; there are so many other topics that need looking into: how people with autism learn and keep on learning through adulthood. Or how autism parents often do indeed come to terms with autism and live productive and happy lives. Or how such studies affect people with autism, or their parents.

  2. Susan says:

    I like the topics you suggested!

  3. In every generation there seems to be yet another so-called expert that blames mothers for autism. The new theory is generally a variant of the same old recycled theory that blames poor ole mom. The most famous person to champion the term “Refrigerator Mother” was Bruno Bettleheim. The theory was that autism was caused by an emotional frigidity of the mother. As a mother who has been in the autism wars for more than 20 years, I say it’s time to clarify a few things to these luddites who always have the trappings of legitimacy, with MDs and Ph.D.s behind their names, exploiting their credentials to propagate their nonsense.

    From Bettelheim in the 1950s to the latest incarnation of MDs who flog this junk using theories that have no data, there are a few things that must be emphasized. First, when a child from birth ignores everyone’s presence, cries incessantly and is up all night for years on end, to the point where the mother is barely functioning, the child’s autism is the CAUSE of the mother’s condition, not the other way around! In other words, the mother’s stress or depression does not cause autism… autism causes maternal stress and depression. Put simply, these professionals do not understand that the causal arrow goes the other way! You’d think that after a decade of post-secondary education, these so-called experts would have figured that out, but apparently not.

    Also, before doctors and researchers venture into the murky waters of autism, I would suggest they read a few peer-reviewed journal articles that have been written in the last decade, and also walk a block, not a mile, in the shoes of a mother of an untreated child with autism.

    Second, a theory is useless without any data supporting it. Put simply, show us the data, or put a sock in it! Since these big thinkers seem happy to posit theories that they have no plans to test and are, therefore, perennially without data to support them, let me have a go, and posit one of my own. Doctors and researchers with little talent and less integrity, tend to gravitate to fields where there is no known cause and no known cure – like autism. That way, B.S. can be purveyed with impunity, since few folks actually expect rigorous scientific standards of conduct (i.e., proper theory construction, hypothesis development, experimental design, testing, data collection, statistical analyses, presentation of results, and interpretation). In other words, where autism is concerned, it’s still the wild west of science. However, the good news is that as we learn more about the true neurobiology of autism, these ignorant pretenders will be relegated to the Flat Earth Society where they belong.

  4. Susan says:

    Well spoken! Thanks.

  5. Amayo Peter says:

    I like this particular topic and wish to say academics plays a huge role in ones life.However being directly involved in a problem,creating awareness,solution and upgrading the solutions is paramount. As a therapist,I have heard different things about autism and causes yet to behold . But the funny thing about it, is that, some of the causes are actually attribute that could be seen and believed.Alcohol and drug parent,environmental pollutions, vaccines,refrigerator parent and pre natal accident.

    Looking at it carefully, everything has a cause and effect. The aforementioned must have a resulting effect. I think parent have a great role in a child’s life. Whether the child is normal or is the spectrum.

    My only pain is the challenges parent faces in the course of managing this special ones.It is not easy to take care of children. So researcher should take care in labeling parents. Let that parent who feels s/he is the cause of their child issue, bare,forgive their selves and think of how their child will recover. Recovering is the most important thing.The school legend will always write to address issues.Remember they have cured a lot.

  6. Susan says:

    Well, with autism there’s qualified recovery, more functionality and well-being within the parameters of having a lifelong condition.

    The parent who feels they caused their child’s autism should be reassured that there are a multitude of factors at work and they should not blame themselves for their child’s autism.

    Unfortunately, “the school legend” often exacerbates a child’s autism, rather than helping to rewrite it.

  7. Robin says:

    I have 2 children diagnosed with high functioning autism and both my mother, myself and her brother all “have it” although have never been evaluated and diagnosed. My great grandfather on my mother’s side was a 33rd degree Freemason, and I know this sounds “out there” but I am being sincere in saying I have concerns at this point there may be a spiritual connection with autism. I have researched this and found that while Freemasonry is cloaked in innocence, it is actually a secret society that slowly and gradually lures it’s members into witchcraft. I also learned that at the high levels of witchcraft it is common to place curses on one’s own children and bloodline, as it gives the practitioner a great deal of power. I am currently looking for some help for my family to see if this may be the case and to resolve it if possible.

  8. Susan says:

    I don’t accept your premise that autism is a curse, a burden/blessing, yes, but not a curse. Genetics and environmental toxins hold the answers, in my estimation.

    Something scary about your worldview is that it can lead to exorcism rituals in which autistic children are harmed and even die.

    Spiritual health is tied to physical health, but I would rethink the notion of a family curse.

  9. Mickael says:

    You seem prompt to refute every argument that could link the mother endocrinology to her offspring’s development. However every single study conducted with mothers having elevated circulating stress hormones leads to the same conclusion: the mother’s stress hormones (glucocorticoids and CRF, as well as catecholamines) lead to fetal developmental impairments, both physical and cognitive which have lifelong consequences.
    While perhaps not every case of autism can be explained by the mother’s hormones, there are strong arguments in favor of this connection. Intrauterine life determines sometimes more than genetics per se, and although the fetus do have mechanisms to compensate their mother’s hormonal inbalance, it’s not always sufficient.
    Last but not least, I have autistic symptoms, my mother have excessive circulating glucocorticoids and is depressive. The reason why this is not a coincidence is because I have excessive opioids in my bloodstream since I was born, which are peptides that are a consequence of stress hormones (in this case, intrauterine ones, via maternal bloodflow). As a neuroscientist and a person, I find insulting this way parents want to feel no responsibility for their children development and thus blame factors that would make them feel less guilty. This is exactly the kind of lobbying which made molested children end up in psychiatric hospital in a recent past because nobody would admit the truth.
    You don’t seem to want to understand autism at all but convince others you know better without having a clue.

  10. Mickael says:

    For the one above who pretends he reads peer reviewed journals:

    Proc Biol Sci. 2012 Apr 7;279(1732):1447-56. Epub 2011 Nov 9.

    Embryonic exposure to corticosterone modifies the juvenile stress response, oxidative stress and telomere length.

    Haussmann MF, Longenecker AS, Marchetto NM, Juliano SA, Bowden RM.
    (Free at Pubmed:

    Weinstock M.

    The potential influence of maternal stress hormones on development and mental health of the offspring. (invited review)

    Brain Behav. Immunity 19: 296-308, 2005.

    Yaka R, Salomon S, Matzner H, Weinstock M.

    Effect of varied gestational stress on acquisition of spatial memory, hippocampal LTP and synaptic proteins in juvenile male rats.

    Behav Brain Res 2007.

    Bogoch Y, Biala YN, Linial M, Weinstock M.

    Anxiety induced by prenatal stress is associated with suppression of hippocampal genes involved in synaptic function.

    J Neurochem 2007.

  11. Susan says:

    Dr. Mate wasn’t addressing stressors prior to birth, only a mother’s mood once she was raising her child. My mother was very disturbed and certainly she affected me, but she didn’t cause autism in me or my siblings. I find it ludicrous to believe that that is the case for anyone.

  12. Mayu Hosoya says:

    Hi I am not quite sure how I came to read this article but it must be meant to be.
    I am a mother of 2 children they both are PDD-NOS and ADHD and a lot of other diagnose with.
    My journey to rescue my kids came down with Homeopathy Seize Therapy and I believe that both my boys are
    on their course of being rescued in time.

    I read this article and for some reason I think there is a link between a depressed mom and an autistic child.
    Because of my own emotional states thru the year of pregnancies and everything is actually has energy in this universe. When we fight with something, even to make our autistic kids get better so they can have their brighter future, the bottom line is that if we are angry or sad and feel resentful and comes up the questions of “why? me?”
    at times, chances are more about the fact we are depressed.
    I think this M.D is not pointing finger and blaming mothers for cause of autism. It was just his research and there may be a lot of points that we could learn from by really think each and every factor of our emotions and how and why we felt towards certain things. I do feel that the cause of my kids being how they are really linking to how
    I am and I was. That is why I just wanted to write this to post my comment. Thank you for reading.

  13. Susan says:

    I appreciate and respect what you are saying, but I still don’t think a depressed mother causes autism. Mothers have it hard enough w/out assuming the blame for a neurological condition. A layer of guilt over layers of depression does not serve anyone. That being said, yes, of course a mother’s mood profoundly affects her child and has bearing on their journey of healing, being either a drag line or an boost of energy in the child reaching their personal potential.

  14. Jud. says:

    Hello all, i read what you wrote about the study and the conclusion of the MD. I understand you are angry. I am a mother 0f a child that has been dyagnosed with a SID. he is our only boy and the thirth one, the tow others, girls, perfectly healthy.
    After reading the conclusion of the study, i was very angry aswell- how daring is to place the blame on the mothers.

    However after reading all of you i have a second thought.
    It is better to know what are, even the POTENTIAL causes of autism than ingnoring them and pretend that it is an attack.
    I will not salute the result of the study, because it hurt, but it helped me think and understand how our behaviour might affect our children for live and probably, not just when they are brand new baby, but when they are growing up too.
    My resolution is to use the result of this study and see what i am doing wrong today and try to fix it with my tree chidren, because for sure they need our atention at all age, and lacking of it can create a trauma at any moment of there live.
    PS. I was alone during the last 2 months when pregnat of our son, with two school age very youngs children. my husband being away for business, i remembered i never felt so depressed and alone during that period of time. We just moved in a new unknowned country, it was during winter time, we had no family, and no friends. YES our son was born during a very special period of my/our lives, when I needed more support than what i had. Maybe i was a bit less wram to him than i was with his sisters,i will absolutly not say that, but for sure iwas not at 100% of my potentials. What i know is, i am alway putting my children 1st,sometime is just a little bit more difficult.

    Thank you for reading, and most of all thx for sharing.

  15. Susan Moffitt says:

    We’re walking a line here. I just don’t want depressed mothers sunk lower with an additional weight of guilt. And while depression certainly affect a son or daughter, there is no evidence that it gives them autism. It can cause them to regress and conversely, positive emotional support can help them to flourish, but that is a far cry from giving autism to a child. Best evidence suggests genetics with environmental triggers. Can the depression of a mother serve as a trigger? I am not qualified to say, but the cause of autism is more complex this doctor suggests.

    Thanks for writing.

  16. Emily says:

    There seems to be a assumption that genetics means “not anyone’s fault” while a sociological explanation means “a choice” or in this case ” someone’s fault” , sociological explanations are meant to find a way to change existing social factors that are not anyone’s fault or choice yet are not rigid predestined genetics. We do not choose the social norms we are born into or raise a family in and these norms are deeply embedded within our psychology and identity …
    Gabor mate is not claiming that any mother or father or caregiver is to blame in his analysis of the increased rate of autism, and no one knows what is to account for the increased rate though many speculate, and often claim speculation to be some proven fact. Gabor Mate is not blaming depressed mothers, he is however suggesting that the nuclear family and advanced technological society has led to the isolation and alienation and overly individualistic way of life … One that results in the mother being blamed or praised for her child’s upbringing, when only recently (in human history) is a mother held solely responsible for the care her children
    It takes a village means more than just the community helping and caring for their children, it also means feeling a duty, obligation and even shame or guilt if all children are not given the opportunity to thrive, rather than marginalizing those members of society cannot. There are to many family’s and their children that struggle to survive, to pay to rent clothing food and education at no fault of their own and this should bring shame upon us all, but instead those who struggle can be categorized and marginalized and therefore ignored…

  17. Jenn says:

    Absolutely terrible. As a mother to a child with Asperger’s, I am appalled. What kind of inhumane person would blame mothers for a child’s autism? All of your theories are a load of crock. My son was born at a very difficult time, having just lost my husband who died in a car accident. I was 7 months pregnant preparing to make funeral arrangements while struggling in a high risk pregnancy. At home, I was busy raising our daughter with Asperger’s. Talk about stress? Kind of odd how my son was born perfectly helpful during such a stressful time. He’s not autistic. Don’t you find that odd? I know damn well I didn’t cause my daughters autism just like I didn’t cause my son not to have it.

  18. Jenn says:


  19. Susan says:

    Hi, I want to mention my family circumstances where this study proves true. My sister-in-law was very depressed and fighting with her husband and in-laws constantly from 6 months till delivery. I remember mentioning to her that her child is in danger if she cant help herself out of her anger and stress but nothing persuaded her. Her child has been diagnosed with autism now. We know noone on both sides of the family who has autism or even suspect might have undiagnosed autism. I want to warn other mothers that it is important to know what the consequences could be. As a family, we had no guidance as to how we could help her depression. Please support such studies as there may be more causes for autism than just genetics. Noone is blaming the mother, instead we want to know it is important to fight depression for the safety of the child.

  20. Susan says:

    Above, I meant for the safety of the child and the mother. I also want to clarify that she was a emotionally stress from having to move to a different country before getting pregnant and pregnancy just worsened into depression.

  21. Jenn says:

    I disagree. Makes zero sense. I was the most depressed while pregnant with my son. I lost my husband when I was seven months pregnant. He died. My son is two years old and perfectly happy and “normal.” My daughter came at a happy time. She is six and was diagnosed on the spectrum by age two. She now has Asperger’s. Your posts make no sense. It doesn’t have to be genetic to get it. Imagine how many perfectly happy and healthy Mothers have children with Autism? The only depression some get is after having a child with Autism.

  22. A Ph.D. says:

    OK, let me give some examples to explain how we should think about the causative role of maternal stress and autism.

    1. IF stress is one of the factors triggering autism, it only occurs in a particular group of mothers who have genetic background that is susceptible to stress.
    2. Even if we can indeed prove that maternal stress is a causative factor in autism, that doesn’t mean you will definitely have a autistic child when you experienced maternal stress.
    3. A more accurate statement should be “maternal stress is a risk factor for autism”. Besides the genetic background, other autism risk factors maybe interact with stress (advanced maternal age, obesity, premature birth,etc). We know maternal stress changes hormones in the mother/fetus, the brain is very sensitive to those changes.
    4. So we are talking about chances, which means we should not take the chance of being have a autistic child due to maternal stress (I think that chance is rather small, say 1 in 100 cases, but are you going to take that 1/100 risk?

  23. Susan says:

    thanks for your thoughtful analysis

  24. Clare says:

    Hi, I am intrigued with the thought process of individuals on this post! Personally I am no expert on this topic & neither do i have a child with autism. It does sound extremely ignorant & narrow minded to suggest maternal depression as a cause of autism! There are so many other questions that need to be asked eg was the mother being treated with anti-depressants! Maybe the mother was well recovered by the time she had her child and in fact it may have been the prenatal chemical exposure that was the culprit. Although it is always much easier to think of a theory but harder to prove. The fact that a definitive cause of autism is yet to be discovered only reiterates the fact that the causes are probably exhaustive. Although I am a big believer in preventing the cause, in regards to autism I believe we all should be more focused on early detection in order to attempt to rewire the plastic brain of the infant!! Early intervention for children as young as one year has been shown to profoundly improve aspects of autism.

  25. Mickael says:

    “It does sound extremely ignorant & narrow minded to suggest maternal depression as a cause of autism”

    Maternal behavior deeply affects infant development and has life long consequences, do your research.

  26. Susan says:

    Because autism has so many genetic and environmental components, I think it’s safest to say that maternal depression is a, but not the, factor of autism onset.

  27. Clare says:

    Ha ha thankyou mickheal for your reply to my post! As I mentioned I am no expert on autism. However I do have some expertise in maternal mental health so research is very much a part of my profession! There has been some confounding research on Serotonin reuptake inhibitors as a cause of autism especially if the mother took this medication in the first three months of pregnancy! So my post was suggesting that maybe the medication was to blame and not the state of mind of the mother! Maternal behaviours do have lasting effects on the child, many mothers do suffer from depression and are still functional and in tune with the emotional wellbeing of their child. So is it the anti-depressant that may be responsible or the lack of attentive bonding that is developed between the infant & mother!

  28. jackie says:

    I think it is very dangerous to “blame” mothers depression or disposition on autism or other child development issues. And women/mothers shld fight to protect their “right” to mother as they deem appropriate. The last thing women need is an MD or scientist making them feel guilty, etc, which could start to change laws and regulations (for example, say everyone agrees the mothers are to blame, now we need a new law to prevent it) as many of the commentors lament.

    HOWEVER, from my own experience,I hav struggled in my life with anxiety and other issues… Only after careful analysis from a psychiatrist, it was explained to me that my mother had traumatized me as an infant. I was skeptical. I had no recollection, aside that I’ve always felt angry and hostile toward her.

    Later my mother had came to visit me, we never got along, and usually its stressful to be around her. I decided to casually ask her about what I was like as a child, etc. Without any prompting, she began with detail to admit to me how she treated me. And how she felt about me when I was born. To make a long explanation short, she was abusive, and took her anger and rage out on me.

    NO ONE KNEW. It was all a secret. How would anyone know? My Father was gone during day, etc. There was no one else in the house, except my older brother who is about a year older than i, who also learned (from watching my mother) how to treat me poorly.
    My mother was one RARE example of a woman who admitted the truth of her actions. The guilt had been eating her up for years and years. She is severly depressed and has suffered stroke frm anti-depressent meds, etc. My mother was able to try and clear her conscience, she had nothing to gain from lying or being in denial.
    My grandmother, would never admitt to the neglect of her last child (after just finishing raising 3 children, she accidentally got pregnent, he Was an unwanted child) my grandma was the picture perfect citizen in the small town. But this youngest child suffered from neglect as she literally wanted nothing to do with him. He grew up, hospitalized several time for severe depression, and finally took his own life. My grandma claims “he was just born that way”.. No one dare, blame the parents for anything! Afterall, it was the fifties and he was probably a “bad seed”. See how children have been discredited for decades?

    Some people really need to wake up.

    Even the most patient and loving parents get pushed to their wits end while child rearing. So can you imagine how a mother who hasn’t learned how to properly deal/cope/vent/balance/communicate and acknowledge/take responsibility for her own emotions(anger) is going to be?

    My point is, many children suffer, and no one even knows it is going on, because the mothers are home alone with the child. Its so TABOO to blame the mother for anything… Even fathers may be in denial about what is going on as they’re so used to bending to the wishes of the wife.

    As I said, I’m not out to blame mom for everything. But in terms of healing, it helps that she was able to affirm what I instinctively (unconsciously?) Knew. Really there is no one to blame, we are who we are.
    I do not have anger with her now, but I see myself as one piece of my family lineage who is evolving and growing more aware.

    Sorry so long, but Hope that helps!

  29. Susan says:

    Thanks for writing. I could’ve written your letter. I think it was a common dynamic in the 50′s especially, with so many women bitter and resentful to be stuck at home with the kids, sublimating their own ambitions. As the third kid, I added that much more time to my mother’s prison sentence. Her mantra to me every day of my life was, “Two is fine, but three’s too many!”

    Clearly, it takes its toll. But does it cause autism? I think not.

  30. Sister Wolf says:

    Dr. Mate blames EVERYTHING on the mother. He also blames drug addiction on the mother’s inferior bonding with her infant. He is a mother-blaming lunatic whose views should be ignored. He reveals that his own mother was a cold and distant Holocaust survivor…but insists that this has nothing to do with his theories. While I am sorry for his childhood experience, I wish he would stop writing his inflammatory pseudo-scientific screeds against mothers.

  31. rudy says:

    this guy saying ‘maternal stress could play a role’ is not the same thing as saying ‘mothers of austistic kids are terrible humans, and even worse mothers who are responsible for every challenge in their child’s life’. but lots of people are reacting as though these two things are the same.

    he’s not a mother-blaming lunatic. he’s questioning the potential role of stress hormones on a developing foetus. very different. and I’m not going to publicly discredit his theories just because I don’t want to feel bad if he’s right. I want to know if he’s right, so I can alter the conditions of my next pregnancy as best I can. and if he’s not right, I’m grateful for his input, and I’ll move onto the next theory, and try to be open to it too.

    I can’t believe so many parents are more concerned about the perception of ‘blame’ and their own choice to feel guilty than they are about figuring out what the hell this thing is that is messing with our kids!

    If has a theory that something i did made my kid autistic, I’m not going to attack them for making me feel bad, I’m going to look into it, becauseif it’s right, I’ll know better how to help my kid, and how to make sure my next one doesn’t have the same challenges.

    this isn’t about making parents feel good, it’s sbout figuring out what’s going on with our kids. if we’re making choices we can change, we need to know that, not band together to discredit the source so we don’t have to feel guilty.

    as it turns out, I think the environmental toxin theory is more likely than the maternal stress one, but I’m not going to hate on this guy just on principle because I don’t like that he’s looking at factors I can influence.

    honestly, I HOPE he’s right, even though I don’t think he is, because then I can take measures to safeguard my next pregnancy.

    parents of austistic kids should not be hindering research by making some avenues of study off limits to protect their feelings…

  32. Susan says:

    My appreciation is that this is not a prenatal phenomenon he’s postulating. I just think that by the time the child is born the dye is cast and the mood of the mother can exacerbate, but not cause a neurological condition.

  33. Autibus says:

    To get classificated as having an autism spectrum disorders says nothing about the etiology, which imply that different causes may give rise to same set of symptoms. This added with all the different definitions of the term autism in itself, make it very possible that trauma in some cases may lead to a disorder on the autism spectrum or autism. Without taking that into account the treatment recommended may have serious consequences. A parent who love their child should never be accused of their kid’s autism, but a child who experience abuse and as a result get the symptoms required for autism spectrum disorder should nor be ignored. As long as the etiology is unknown, all possible causes, as pictured by the historical data, should be examined by the doctor.

  34. Susan Moffitt says:

    thanks for your comment…

  35. Darryl says:

    When I initially left a comment I seem to have clicked
    on the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox
    and now each time a comment is added I receive 4 emails with the exact same comment.
    There has to be an easy method you are ablee to remove me from that service?

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