The history of autism is as mysterious as the diagnosis itself. There is no formal evidence that the condition existed before the 20th century. However, some historical figures, including Thomas Jefferson, Albert Einstein and Michelangelo are believed to have had autistic traits.
Dr. Eugene Bleuler used the term autistic around 1912 in reference to schizophrenic individuals who exhibited catatonic behaviors. The word is derived from the Greek word autos, which means self. The term referenced individuals who were cut off from their environments.
Dr. Bleuler is best known for renaming dementia praecox, replacing the term with schizophrenia. He created the word from the Greek words schizo and phrene, together meaning split mind. Interestingly, research indicates a possible link between autistic disorder and schizophrenia.
Early History of Autism
Leo Kanner was a doctor from Johns Hopkins University who used the term autism to refer to a group of children who displayed withdrawn behaviors. Kanner’s autism was first documented around 1938 but was not formally introduced to the medical community until the early 1940s.
During the same era, a German scientist named Hans Asperger identified similar characteristics in a group of children he studied. He referred to the children as “little professors” because of their tendency to speak about specific subjects in great depth. Asperger’s syndrome is distinct from autism but it is in the same spectrum of disorders.
Sigmund Freud’s influence on psychology during the 1940s and 1950s is evident in the theories behind the cause autistic disorders. Freudian psychology suggested that children with autism were not given the proper love and attention they required in order to develop healthy interpersonal relationships. The theory remained popular through the early 1960s, and there is some evidence of it today.
Autism treatments during the years following the respective Kanner and Asperger discoveries followed the Freudian psychological theories. Children were placed in foster homes to recover but the approach fell short due to the nature of autistic disorders and the misunderstood causes.
Autism in the 1960s and 1970s
Freudian theory waned a bit but the notion of poor parenting remained in the forefront for many researchers and physicians during the decades to follow. None is as prevalent as the Refrigerator Mother theory, in which the mother fails to bond with her baby.
Bruno Bettleheim described refrigerator mothers in his book The Empty Fortress: Infantile Autism and the Birth of the Self published in 1967. In the book, he compares autistic disorder to imprisonment in a concentration camp. The notion is that a cold and indifferent mother leads to the symptoms of autism.
The term refrigerator mother was not coined by Bettleheim. The designation emerged around 1950. In 1949, Leo Kanner attached autism to a “genuine lack of maternal warmth” but his assertion failed to recognize siblings of autistic children who showed no symptoms of the condition.
During the 1960s and 1970s, interventions typically included removal from the family home. Many children were placed in institutions in order to receive care around the clock. Treatments included:
D-Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD)
Electroconvulsive therapy (which is still under investigation as a treatment for autism)
Behavioral approaches that used aversives (punishment)Autism was a misunderstood condition and the misunderstandings led to unfortunate interventions and treatment therapies. Developments in the decades to follow led to fortunate changes.
Autism in the 1980s and 1990s
Autism was introduced to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) in the 1980s. In its 1994 publication, the DSM-IV, added Asperger’s syndrome as one of five pervasive developmental disorders.
Interest in autism peaked in the late 1980s and the fascination may be due to a popular movie that was released in 1988.
Rainman sent autism into the spotlight in 1988. This Oscar-winning film portrayed Raymond Babbit, a character based on a savant named Kim Peek. Kim actually has a disorder affecting the corpus callosum. Raymond Babbit’s character is a combination of Kim Peek’s abilities and autistic savants. The portrayal was so powerful that many confuse Rainman’s character with autistic disorders in spite of the fact that about 10 percent of the autistic population has savant abilities.
Treatments in Autism Today
The development of a deeper understanding of autism as a possible genetic condition that has a biological basis led to changes in treatment approaches in the 1990s. The prevailing intervention today is behavioral therapies including applied behavioral analysis. However, many other approaches are used as well.
- Medication can be prescribed for some individuals but most of the interventions focus on behavior including social interaction.
- Relationship development continues to be a primary concern.
Autism and related pervasive developmental disorders continue to baffle the scientific community and much of the public continues to have a poor understanding of individuals with autistic disorders. The history of autism is currently in development.