The "Refrigerator Mother" theory has pointed out that autistic behaviours in children could arise due to lack of emotional attachment and maternal warmth.
The hypothesis was popularized by Austrian-born American child psychologist and writer Bruno Bettelheim.
Now, scientists around the globe are making remarkable progress in untangling the genetic roots of the condition, which affects millions of children and adults.
They are focusing on genes that have been implicated in autism and related conditions, collectively termed "autism spectrum disorders."
That research may solve mysteries about autism, like what causes autism? Why does it affect more boys than girls? And what can be done to prevent and treat it?
Scientists now have solidly implicated certain genes as being involved in autism.
Most of those genes play a role in the transmission of signals through the junctions or "synapses" between nerve cells.
Synapses are the territory where one nerve releases a chemical signal that hands off messages to an adjoining nerve.
The human brain has an estimated 1,000 trillion synapses, and they are hot spots for miscommunications that underpin neurological disorders like autism.
Scientists now are gleaning information on what those genes do, what brain circuits they affect and how the proteins they produce function. In doing so, they are paving the way for future medications for autism spectrum disorders.
The study appeared in the current edition of Chemical and Engineering News, the weekly newsmagazine of the American Chemical Society.