Autism: Its History and What We Know Now

Scientists now believe autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or autism for short, has likely always been a part of human development, but it wasn’t well understood, diagnosed, or documented until recent years.

In the U.S., autism was first recorded in a remarkable 1846 medical survey conducted by Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, who was known for the founding of the Perkins School for the Blind.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts asked Howe to take on a special mission: travel to 63 cities and villages to examine, interview, and record information on those with intellectual disabilities. Howe agreed to take on the task. Over many months during that year, Howe took copious notes and compiled lengthy descriptions of the 574 individuals he visited.

His subjects were of all ages, from the very young to the very aged, and they were all considered “peculiar” or “odd.”

For example, one person exhibited no discernable verbal communication skills, but could sing more than 200 songs and not miss a single word. Howe noted “Case 360” had the ability to calculate the number of seconds a person had been alive.

Some subjects had the ability to complete complicated math in their heads, but lacked any social abilities. Others could read simple or even highly complicated text, yet have no comprehension of its meaning.

Even though there was no name for what Howe recorded, experts now believe his subjects had autism over any other condition.

More than six decades later, Eugen Bleuler, a Swiss psychiatrist, became the first person to use the term autism, believing it was a form of childhood schizophrenia. Bleuler derived the term from the Greek word “autos,” which means “self.”

By the 1940s, researchers in the U.S. began to use autism to describe children with social or emotional problems.

Psychiatrist Leo Kanner, from Johns Hopkins University, published a 1943 study of 11 children with autism traits, citing withdrawn behavior, a strong preference for being alone, and obsessive interests in his subjects. He called the condition, “early infantile autism.”

Around this same time, Hans Asperger, a respected scientist in Germany, identified what he described as a “milder” autism subset condition. The children he studied had strong language ability combined with an above average understanding of a highly technical subject, yet experienced difficulty with social interactions. These higher functioning children would later be labeled as having Asperger’s syndrome.

From the late 1940s into the 1960s, those exhibiting signs of autism were lumped into the same categories as those who were mentally retarded, emotionally disturbed, or schizophrenic.

As with the other conditions, those with autism were sometimes treated as less than human.

For their part, parents were often blamed for their child’s behavior, especially mothers, and it was not uncommon for children with autism to be removed from their home and placed in foster care, institutions, or even asylums. Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim theorized that emotionally cold mothers were the root cause of autism – sometimes referred to as refrigerator mothers or refrigerator parents.

During this same time period, it was widely believed autism was caused by life experiences over biology. Doctors experimented with electric shock therapy, “pain and punishment” change techniques, and even LSD as a way to alter behaviors.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that the medical profession began taking a much closer look at autism.

A turning point came in 1977, when a highly-regarded twins study, published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, determined that autism is largely caused by genetics and differences in brain development, rather than environment.

A decade later, autism was added to the then current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-3), finally providing health care professionals with a checklist for diagnosis and a handful of proven therapies, such as early intervention and highly controlled learning environments. This medical recognition also opened the door to new research into autism.

Research into better modalities of care for those with autism became more understood and put into practice. Notably, UCLA psychologist Ivar Lovaas revealed how intensive therapy can help children with autism; giving families hope that they can help their children. The federal government added autism to its special education category in 1991, which led to schools to identify and serve students with autism.

Today we know much more about autism, yet falsehoods and misinformation still thrive.

These Myths vs. Truths may help unravel facts from fiction:

MYTH: Autism is present at birth.

Truth: Onset of symptoms is sometimes obvious in infants, but it is more likely to be evident in toddlers.

MYTH: There is an “autism test.”

Truth: There is no definitive test. Rather, health experts closely observe a person and compare his or her behavior to established criteria, benchmarks or norms.

MYTH: Autism is a disease.

Truth: Autism is not a disease, it is a disorder.

MYTH: Autism affects boys and girls equally.

Truth: According to the CDC, autism is nearly five times more common among boys than girls – one in 42 in boys vs. 1 in 189 in girls.

MYTH: Autism is caused by immunization.

Truth: There is no link or correlation between immunizations (including the MMR) and autism.

MYTH: There is a cure for ASD.

Truth: There is no cure for autism, but there are treatments and interventions.

MYTH: Kids with autism can “grow out of it.”

Truth: In very mild cases, and with intensive therapies early in life, some people with autism can “test out” of the disease. However, for the vast majority, autism remains a lifelong condition.

MYTH: Most people living with autism have hearing problems.

Truth: Hearing is not usually an issue, but often the person with autism will tune out words and sounds.

MYTH: Many people living with ASD have stomach issues.

Truth: Some do have digestive issues, but that is not true of everyone with ASD.

MYTH: Those living with autism repeat everything they hear.

Truth: The tendency to repeat sounds, words or phrases is called echolalia. Not everyone with autism repeats, but it is fairly common, especially when children are young and just learning about language.

MYTH: All people with autism have the same traits and challenges.

Truth: While it is true that people can share behaviors, every person is unique. For example, as many as 70 percent of those with ASD have sleep problems, but that means that 30 percent do not.

MYTH: People living with ASD don’t care about other people.

Truth: Those with Autism are not necessarily destined to live socially isolated lives. Many who have autism want friends. They strive to understand the world around them and relate to others.

MYTH: Everyone with autism has savant “Rain Man” skills, such as a photographic memory, the ability to calculate numbers and dates, and advanced musical or other artistic abilities.

Truth: Only about 10 percent of those on the ASD have been identified with these skills. Almost half (about 44%) of children identified with ASD has average to above average intellectual ability.

MYTH: Autism is increasing due to vaccinations and other healthcare interventions.

Truth: Autism is estimated to affect 1 in 68 people, a major increase in the past two decades. However, several factors are at play, such as better and much earlier diagnosis, and people who were previously misdiagnosed.

Learn more about autism myths and facts by visiting these websites:


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