The History of Autism

Doctors have come a long way since 1908, when the word autism was first used. Here’s a look at the history of autism spectrum disorder.

You might think of autism as a new problem because it has become so much more prevalent in recent years. But it’s actually been on the books for more than 70 years–and our thinking about the condition has changed dramatically during that time. Here are the key events in autism history.

1908: The word autism is used to describe a subset of schizophrenic patients who were especially withdrawn and self-absorbed.

1943: American child psychiatrist Leo Kanner, M.D., publishes a paper describing 11 children who were highly intelligent but displayed “a powerful desire for aloneness” and “an obsessive insistence on persistent sameness.” He later names their condition “early infantile autism.”

1944: A German scientist named Hans Asperger describes a “milder” form of autism now known as Asperger’s Syndrome. The cases he reported were all boys who were highly intelligent but had trouble with social interactions and specific obsessive interests.

1967: Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim popularizes the theory that “refrigerator mothers,” as he termed them, caused autism by not loving their children enough. (Spoiler alert: This is completely false.) “Post-World War II, there was a lot of psychoanalytic work done on autism where researchers looked solely at the impact of life experiences,” explains Parents advisor Fred Volkmar, M.D., director of the Child Study Center at Yale University School of Medicine and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders. “They didn’t consider the role of biology or genetics, which we now understand to be the main cause.” Autism is also classified under schizophrenia in the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, although scientists now know there is no link between the conditions.


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