The History of Autism and its Discovery

Many people that do not know the history of autism think that it is a recent modern day discovery.

That is because there are more cases of autism reported now than there were many years ago.

The assumption is before autism got its diagnostic name, it did not exist.

However, this is not true, as autism has existed for as long as man has existed.

Fortunately, now we have organizations like the National Autism Organization.

The only difference between then and now is that autism had other labels all with different meanings.

People that had autism in the 1800’s got different and sometimes extremely harsh treatment from society than those that have the medical condition today.

They did not fit in with other members of the society andfaced ostracizationand labelling.

This has however changed over the years as people continue learning the history of autism.

Before we review the history of autism, let us learn what autism is.

What is Autism?

The definition of autism varies and many people confuse autism with autism spectrum disorder.

The two are completely different.

Autism is a developmental disorder that could get serious that impairs a person’s ability to interact and communicate well.

Autism spectrum disorder on the other hand is a range of varying conditions all characterized by several challenges ranging from repetitive behaviours, unique strengths, social and communication skills and different ways of doing things.

There are many types of autism, all caused by varying combinations of environmental and genetic influences.

In majority of the cases, autism appears to children aged between 2 and 3 years.

Some early diagnosis to children as young as 18 months is also possible.

Some of the delays brought about by autism can be rectified if addressed early enough.

Signs and symptoms of autism

Some of the most common symptoms of autism are

  • Communication difficulties
  • Difficulties in interacting socially
  • Obsessive behaviours
  • Repetitive disorder

The early signs are:

Failure for a child to make eye contact especially during feeding time, smile back, respond to familiar voices and his or her name, follow visual objects, gesticulate.

There is no cure for autism but there are different therapies that make it easier for people living with autism to cope.

These are music therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy and teacher therapy.

The History and Discovery of Autism

Before 1911, the word autism did not exist.

It was simply a condition with many different labels.

Since 1908, the understanding of autism has changed a lot with more and more people accepting it as a medical condition like any other.

Below are the main events in the history and discovery of autism


1908 is the year that the word autism came into being.

A Swiss psychiatrist by the name Eugene Bleuler was the first person to come up with the name to describe several schizophrenic patients that seemed self-absorbed and withdrawn.

Bleuler derived the word autism from the Greek word autos, meaning self.

Autism, according to Bleuler meant withdrawal within self and morbid self-admiration.


In 1943, child psychiatrists Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger, the following year, worked separately to carry out a research on autism.

Kanner reported on the children severely affected by autism, while Asperger reported on autistic children that were able to do things well.

In his study, Kanner had children for his research all with varying conditions.

The conditions ranged from difficulties in adapting to changing routines daily, interacting socially, keeping good memories, lack of stimuli sensitivity, food allergies, echolalia, lack of spontaneity and intellectual potential.


On the other hand, Hans Asperger studied children with the same symptoms and signs of those that Kanner studied apart from a few differences.

His group of children did not portray any linguistic problems but instead spoke as if they were grown-ups.

This means they did not have Echolia like Kanner group of children.

In his research paper, he also noted that many of the children with autism that he studied portrayed completely different motor skills from those of normal children.

He also noted that they were clumsy and over active.


Next to carry out research on autism and autism, spectrum disorder was Bruno Bettelman.

Bruno studied the effect therapy would have on autistic children by putting three children into therapy and studied their response.

His report talked on “refrigerator mothers” who he said were the causes of autism in children.

“Refrigerator mothers” means the mothers were not warming up to their autistic children making their conditions worsen.

He then went ahead to separate the children from their mothers and observe the outcome.

His theory that the kids suffered due to living with frigid mothers of course came under attack because it was not true.

One parent advisor by the name Fred Volkmar, who was also the M.D and Director of the Child Study Centre at Yale University of Medicine, explained that the researchers failed to consider the role genetics and biology played in the development of autistic disorders.


In the 1970’s, people were now more aware of autism and its symptoms.

A research carried out on twins in 1977, showed that the causes of autism were largely due to biological differences in a child’s brain development and genetics.


Erica foundation was founded with the main aim of offering education and therapy to children with psychosis.

Some parents still thought their autistic children were either psychotic or mentally retarded.

“Infantile autism” got a listing for the first time in the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders.

This helped to officially separate childhood schizophrenia with autism.

Still in the 1980’s, Lorna Wing and Christopher Gillberg added disturbed mutual communication, limited imagination and disturbed mutual contact as other autistic disorders.

In 1990, they added a fourth one, which was limited ability to plan.


DSM replaced infantile autism in 1987 with a more thorough autism disorder definition.

The replacement included a checklist with different criteria for diagnosis.

In the same year, a study showing intensive therapy can help control autism was published by Ivar Lovaas, an UCLA psychologist.

This gave hoe to many parents that had autistic children.


Public awareness to autism got a boost with the release of the movie Rain ManthatfeaturedDustin Hoffman as an autistic person who could carry out huge calculations because of his photographicmemory.


Autism became a category in the special education unit and schools started identifying kids with autism and offering different kinds of services to them.

In the same year, Asperger’s syndrome got an addition in the DSM.

This helped to include autistic cases of highly functional individuals.


Lancet published an article linking measles-mumps-rubella vaccine to autism.

There was no proof though though which saw the finding being questioned.


Due to fears from the public, the vaccine thimerosal, which contained a mercury-basedpreservative,was removed from all vaccines given to children.

There was fear that it too contributed to autism.

This claim was also questioned and said not to be true.


CDC improves screening for children to determine those that have autism.

It also established that the numbers of the disorder was on the rise.


This year saw the creation of ASD, which brought all the sub categories of autism together.

ASD is in two categories, which are 1) restricted and or repetitive behaviour, and 2) impairedsocial communication and/or interaction.