The History of Autism

The word “autism” comes from the Greek word “autos” meaning “self”. Autism began as a description of people who isolated themselves, or were removed from interacting with others in a social environment. The Greeks, however, didn’t recognize or treat autism as a disorder. It wasn’t even until 1911 that the word “autism” itself was used. The history of autism as a recognized disorder is fairly recent.

A Swiss psychiatrist named Eugen Bleuler was the first person to use the term “autism”. His usage of the word paints the perfect picture of the world’s understanding of autism at the time. Bleuler wasn’t diagnosing people with autism, but was using the word to describe a particular group of schizophrenics.

Up until this point in history, many children and adults suffering from autism were treated, both medically and socially, the same as sufferers of schizophrenia. They were often housed together in the same medical facilities and prescribed the same drugs. Many parents of autistic children found the relationship too difficult and often either ignored their child or sent them to be housed in an insane asylum.

It wasn’t until 1943 that Dr. Leo Kanner, a doctor from Johns Hopkins University, began to describe a group of anti-social children that he was working with as autistic. He even went so far as to recognize autism as a distinct condition separate from any that existed at the time. A little less than a year later, Dr. Hans Asperger, an Austrian Psychiatrist, noticed a very similar condition, which we now know as Asperger’s syndrome.

Many sources have claimed that part of the current stigma against autism is a direct result of the previous link between schizophrenia and autism in early scientific and medical diagnoses. This may say something of the nature of autism, but it probably says more about the nature of mental health awareness in the United States and most western European countries. That there is a stigma at all against sufferers of mental disorders and diseases proves there is a long way to go in educating the public about mental health issues.

In the 1960s medical professionals began to classify autism as a separate condition from other mental health conditions more and more regularly. In 1964 Dr. Bernard Rimland was the first scientist to categorize autism as a biological disorder.

The significance of this achievement cannot be under emphasized. Up until this time, autism was considered an all-in-your-head disease. By supporting the disorder with evidence of its biological nature, autism became a hot topic in the psychiatric field. Great amounts of research and resources were poured into learning more about the disorder and what could be done to treat it.

Throughout this time of research and experimentation, many treatments and tactics were tried including LSD, electric shock therapy, pain and punishment and other behavioral management techniques. The 1960s and 1970s were a rough time to be autistic, or to be the parent of an autistic child. More was unknown than was known and the medicine showed that.

There was at the time a large debate roaring amongst professionals and parents alike. One that seems to have contributed largely to today’s stigmas that pervade so much of popular culture. The debate was that autism was a direct result of how a child was raised. We know now that many biological, genetic and behavioral studies have been rigorously tested and completed to prove that this is not the case. Even so, it seems that we can still see traces of this stigma rearing its ugly head today.

In 1977 Sir Michael Rutter and Dr. Susan Folstein published the first autism twin study. This further revealed the genetic connection and basis for autism as a disorder. If there was any doubt before, this study sealed the deal. Autism was, in the minds of the scientists, a real disorder. Fast forward to the 1980s and we see the emergence of behavior therapy and controlled environments in treating autism. Even today it is possible to find pockets of physicians with very limited knowledge of this disorder.

Autism as a disorder has a long way to go before it will ever be fully integrated in the social and behavioral world in which non-autistic individuals live. That being said, the future looks bright for those who have the disorder and for those that care for them.


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