Home > Uncategorized > Autism – A brief historic perspective

Autism – A brief historic perspective

History is in the past but can help place things in perspective. While autism diagnosis strikes most parents from the blue, suddenly from no where, history says it has been around and recognized atleast 5-6 decades ago ( probably even earlier??). I will present some key milestones, the early blunders in understanding and current evolving understanding.

Retrospectively viewed, the earliest known description of symptoms of autism could possibly relate to Victor, a French feral child found in 1800 and believed to have lived alone in the woods for nearly the first 12 years of his life. Despite a young physician’s (Itard) intense efforts to teach him he only learned to speak two words but did make progress in his behavior towards other people. One day when the housekeeper was crying in grief over loss of her husband, Victor is reported to have engaged in consoling behavior and Itard reported this as progress. In 1867, Henry Maudlsey is said to have described insanity in children and his descriptions are consistent with today’s ASD.

Eugene Bleuler (1911/1950), a Swiss psychiatrist coined the term autismus to describe idiosyncratic, self-centred thinking during his work on schizophrenia.
In 1943, Leo Kanner introduced the modern concept of autism while describing 11 children with “autistic disturbances of affective contact”. He not only used it to describe children who lived in their own world cut off from normal social intercourse but also proceeded to distinguish it from schizophrenia indicating a failure of development instead of regression. Children with autism were described as inflexible, preferring sameness and rigid. In the following years, Kanner proceeded to hypothesize that autism was influenced by parenting, a dearth of maternal warmth { and this shoes how even scientists who are dead right about certain things can be equally dead wrong about certain things) and that many such children were not motivated to perform though not retarded.

In 1944, Hans Asperger used the term autistic psychopathy, now referred to as Asperger’s disorder in DSM- IV- TR and his study became widely known only in 1991 when it was translated in English by Frith.

The DSM I manual first released in 1952, classified autistic-like features under Childhood Schizophrenia. In 1967 Bruno Bettelheim popularized the theory of “refrigerator mothers” as cause of autism amongst public and medical community ( Another example of a scientist being dead wrong leading to harm in society) . These have since been disproved in research literature (Mundy etal., 1986). In 1977 the first study of twins helped change the perceptions and look towards genetics for understanding ethology of autism.

In 1987, psychologist Ivar Lovaas presented his first study demonstrating that intensive intervention can help children with autism learn. In the same year, autistic disorder replaced “infantile autism” in the diagnostic manual. Dustin Hoffman, essayed the role of a Autistic Savant in the movie “Rain man” which raised public awareness of the disorder while at the same time creating a mis-perception that all autistic individuals have savant like qualities. In 1993, Catherine Maurice’s book “Let Me Hear Your Voice: A Family’s Triumph Over Autism” brought into public view the effectiveness of use of interventions based on the science of Applied Behavior Analysis. In the same year, Jim Sinclair, an autistic adult started a neuro-diversity movement and spoke at the international conference on autism.

MMR vaccine was proposed as a cause of Autism in a Lancet study of 1998 but it was debunked and retracted though the controversy it raised continues till today.

In 2007, the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimated prevalence of Autism at 1 in 150 recognizing it as assuming epidemic proportions . this had climbed to 1 in 68 by 2014 ( “ Autism Spectrum Disorder: Data and Statistics” , 2014). As the prevalence figures kept climbing geometrically some researchers started questioning the validity of the prevalence figures. Gernsbacher, Dawson & Goldsmith (2005) have argued that the diagnostic criteria have been diluted, particularly between DSM III (1980) and DSM 4 (1990)  and other statistical errors contribute to a misperception of an epidemic.
In 2013 , DSM V was released and it clubbed several separate diagnosis into one diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorders.

Research into the cause of ASD continues to be unsuccessful in pin pointing the cause however there are advances in interventions  that can help individuals with autism acquire new skills and lead a better adapted life.

A history of Applied Behavior Analysis and evidence based interventions could be the next blog topic.




Autism Spectrum Disorder, (2014). Retrieved April 10th,2014 from http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html

Autism: Rise of a disorder. Los Angeles Times 06 dec 2011, Data desk n. pag. Web. 10 Apr. 2014. .

Autism Timeline | Neurotypical | POV | PBS. (n.d.). Retrieved April 10, 2014, from http:/   /www.pbs.org/pov/neurotypical/autism-history-timeline.php#.U0aH8fmSySq

Gernsbacher, M. A., Dawson, M., & Goldsmith, H. H. (2005). Three Reasons Not to Believe in an Autism Epidemic. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14(2), 55–58. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.0963-7214.2005.00334.x

Goldstein, S., Ozonoff, S., (2009), Historical perspective and overview. In S. Goldstein, J. A.   Naglieri & S. Ozonoff( Eds.,), Assessment of autism spectrum disorders (pp 1-13). New York, NY: Guilford Press

Wing, L., Potter, D.,  (2009), Historical perspective and overview. In S. Goldstein, J. A.   Naglieri & S. Ozonoff( Eds.,), The Epidemiology of Autism Spectrum Disorders: Is the prevalence rising?.  (pp 18-45). New York, NY: Guilford Press

Walsh, Neil, and Elisabeth Hurley. The Good and Bad Science of Autism. Autism West Midlands, UK. Web. 10 Apr 2014. <http://www.autismwestmidlands.org.uk/files/epub_goodbadscienceofautism(1).pdf>.

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