The Autism Mom: Why Is She Like That?

Jesse Meadows
10 min readMay 14, 2021

A (somewhat) brief history of autism’s most controversial archetype

An image of Jenny McCarthy speaking at an anti-vaccine rally, with the words “Just Call Me Supermom” next to her, and a superman logo made of puzzle pieces.
Jenny McCarthy, Leader of The Autism Moms

The Autism Mom is an infamous villain in the autistic community. We love to make fun of her, to write angry think pieces about her, to fight her on Twitter.

We are outraged that she wants to cure or fix her children, that she supports Autism Speaks, that she blames autism on vaccines and tells us how to refer to ourselves.

Some Autism Moms support abusive therapies and fringe, dangerous treatments. Some Autism Moms are murderers.

It’s upsetting, but I also understand that no Autism Mom is an island. So I couldn’t help but wonder: Why is she like that? Who hurt her?

History tells us that the Autism Mom is a product of social forces, and she’s not alone; she is joined by the rarely-discussed Schizophrenia Mom and the somewhat new-on-the-scene ADHD Mom, all of which advocate for biomedical models of disorder and treatment for their children, and all of which built powerful lobbying organizations like Autism Speaks, NAMI, and CHADD to do so.

To understand where these parent advocates came from, we have to go back to the beginning of the 20th century, when conceptions of mental illness were first formed.

The early psychiatric institution in the US, bankrolled by the Rockefellers, located the cause of mental illness in the individual, and looked to the family for clues as to how it developed.

They did this to avoid addressing large-scale social issues that caused distress — it was easier to frame everything as a personal problem, to “cure” people and return them to their roles as “productive members of society”, without ever questioning what role that society played in their mental health.

The early days of psychiatry were also marked by the Freudian concept of psychoanalysis, which reigned in the field for most of the last century. For Freudians, all mental conditions were caused by adverse reactions to events in the first few years of life.

This meant if your kid was schizophrenic, it was because you came from a “schizophrenogenic family”, and specifically, it was because you had a shitty mom.

Jesse Meadows

writer + digital artist doing critical adhd studies + re-politicizing mental health | they/them