History of Autism

What is Autism?

It is a range of complex neurodevelopment disorders. Common characteristics of these disorders include: impairments with social behaviors, difficulty with vocal communication, and repetitive patterns of behavior.

What does “Autism” mean?

The term Autism comes from the Greek word “autos,” meaning “self.”

The Timeline of “Autism”:

1887- Dr. John Langdon Down, the first to describe Down’s syndrome, researched mental retardation. His description of “developmental retardation” describes individuals who would be classified as having Autism today.

1911- Eugen Bleuler used the word autism to describe a symptom of schizophrenia http://psycnet.apa.org/index.cfm?fa=buy.optionToBuy&uid=1952-00161-020

1927- Eugène Minkowski, a student of Bleuler, further defined autism as the “trouble generator” of schizophrenia


In the 1940s the idea of “Autism” changed…

1943 Leo Kanner in the United States and in 1944 Hans Asperger in Germany conducted research describing individuals with social, and emotional limitations that also demonstrated withdrawn behavior. Kanner would refer to this condition as Kanner’s syndrome- later Early Infantile Autism, while Asperger named the condition Aperger’s syndrome.

The symptoms identified by both were similar but not identical. Asperger syndrome sufferers experienced the same difficulty with social interactions, but had stronger language ability and an above average understanding of highly technical knowledge.

Asperger himself believed that Asperger’s syndrome and Early Infantile Autism were distinct disorders.

Refrigerator Mother Theory…

1949- In Leo Kanner’s next study, he observed a small sampling of children from well-educated families. Because of the limited sample size and selectiveness of the population used, Kanner made a false statement that children with Autism were more likely to be born into highly intellectual families. During this study, he began calling the mothering style as “cold” resulting in his credit with coining the term “refrigerator mother.”

1950s- Bruno Bettleheim claimed that Autism was an emotional disorder that developed in some children because of psychological harm brought upon them by their mothers. Bettleheim wrote multiple books and appeared in magazines as well as prime time television discussing the theory.

1964- Bernard Rimland, the father of a son with Autism, presented the first solid argument that Autism is not related to the parent child bond, but is a biological condition. He founded the Autism Society of America for parents to have a voice against the Refrigerator Mother Theory.


Progress in the 1970s…

1971- Eric Schopler and Robert Reichler studied the effects of parent involvement in the treatment of children with Autism. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2FBF01537746

1972- Schopler started the Treatment and Education of Autistic and Related Communication Handicapped Children (TEACCH) program at the University of North Carolina. The purpose of TEACCH is to provide training and other programs for individuals with Autism.http://www.teacch.com/

The first published study with identical twins…

1977- Susan Folstein and Michael Rutter conducted a study using 21 same-sexed twin pairs where at least one twin showed symptoms of infantile Autism. They concluded that brain injury in the infancy period may lead to Autism on its own or in combination with a genetic predisposition. However, uncertainty remains on what is inherited and how. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1469-7610.1977.tb00443.x/abstract

Autism as we know it…

1980- Autism was added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders- Third Edition (DSM-III) as “infantile autism”. This addition made it possible for doctors to accurately diagnose Autism and gave the ability to easily differentiate Autism from schizophrenia.

1987- “Autistic Disorder” replaced “Infantile Autism” in the manual and gave a more expansive explanation of the diagnosis.

1991- Schools begin to identity and serve students with Autism following the federal government decision to make Autism a special education category.


Pervasive Developmental Disorder- Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS), and Aspergers Syndrome…

1994- Both PDD-NOS and Asperger’s Syndrome were added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders- Forth Edition (DSM-IV). The DSM-IV is the main diagnostic reference of mental health professionals in the United States.



2013- After 19 years, the DSM has been updated based on new literature and clinical experience. Significant changes to the Autism criteria occurred in this update.

The diagnosis will now be referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). There will no longer be sub diagnoses such as Asperger syndrome, PDD-NOS, etc. The new criteria will now only have 2 areas to determine diagnosis rather than 3. The new areas are social communication/interaction and restricted and repetitive behavior.


Important Organizations:

1965- The Autism Society of America was founded by Bernard Rimland and other parents of children with autism. Autism Society of America’s focus is to increase awareness, advocate for appropriate services across the individuals lifetime and provide the latest information on treatment options, and research. http://www.autism-society.org/about-us/

1994- National Alliance for Autism Research was founded by parents of children with autism as the first organization in the U.S. devoted to funding biomedical research focusing on autism spectrum disorders. http://www.ncpad.org/16/Organizations/2304#sthash.RDkznVNX.dpuf

1995- Cure Autism Now (CAN) was founded by Jonathan Shestack and Portia Iversen to raise awareness and funding for research.


2005- Autism speaks was founded by Bob and Suzanne Wright. Autism speaks funds research, increases awareness, and advocates for the needs of individuals on the spectrum and their families. http://www.autismspeaks.org/about-us

Autism in Film:

Many films feature characters are identified as having an ASD or characters that display characteristics of an ASD. Some films of note are listed below.

1986- The Boy Who Could Fly

A teenager with autism is sent to live with his uncle following his parents’ death. The teenager exhibits many features of autism such as social withdrawal, no language, and stereotypic behaviors.

1988- Rainman

A man returns to his childhood home following the death of his father. His father left a large sum of money to his savant brother Raymond. Raymond demonstrates many characteristics generally seen in individuals with Autism such as perseverations, insistence on sameness, rocking, and self-injury.

1993- What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?

Gilbert Grape lives in a small town with his family. Gilbert’s brother Arnie, shows characteristics of Autism.

2009- Adam

A man living with Asperger’s syndrome begins a relationship with his neighbor.

2010 – My Name is Khan

A man with Asperger’s Syndrome is detained following 9/11 when authorities mistake his “odd behavior” for possible terrorist behavior.

2010- Temple Grandin

The story of Temple Grandin, a woman with Autism who has become one of the top scientists in the humane livestock handling industry, is told.

play with plasticine

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