How Did We Learn about Autism?

There are many diseases and disorders that seem commonplace, or at least recognized and understood, by the general population today that have not always been so identified or recognized.  Historically, any conditions, including autism, that hint at mental illness have been misunderstood and have resulted in fear of those affected.

Autism, or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is one such disorder.  With today’s technology, we are able to quickly research and educate ourselves about autism, but that certainly does not make it a new disorder.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest that autism has affected individuals throughout history and that the earliest published accounts of what sounds like autistic behavior date back to the 18th century.  Historically, as now, there has been no medical test for autism, so observation of behavior remains the way in which autism is diagnosed.

According to the Autism and PPD Support Network, in 1911 Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler first coined the term “autism.”  At that time, the term referred to adult schizophrenia.

It was not until 1943 that Dr. Leo Kanner of Johns Hopkins University described autism for the first time. Basing his discovery on observations of children who had withdrawn from human contact as early as age 1, Kanner’s described what he called term “autistic disturbances of affective contact.”  Around the same time as Kanner’s discovery, German scientist Dr. Hans Asperger described another form of autism, based on his observations of 400 children, which came to be known as Asperger syndrome. Asperger syndrome is a pervasive developmental delay that shares some of the same behaviors as autism.

From Kanner’s observations until the 1960’s, the medical community still thought that children affected by autism were schizophrenic.  It was not until the 1960’s that autism symptoms and treatments were more thoroughly understood.  Today, with an increased public and professional awareness of ASDs, research continues and the definition of autism is changing as we learn more about the disorder.

Naming this disorder as a discrete and treatable condition, then, gave credibility to the disorder and hope for those affected by it.  Surely autism has been around for centuries, but because of the behavioral symptoms associated with it, it was misunderstood and unnamed until recently.

Since Kanner’s original discovery, the criteria used to diagnose ASDs have changed many times.  As with any other complex medical condition, the more research that is done, the more we can learn about the causes, symptoms, and treatments for autism.  The more we learn the less frightening and foreign the disorder will seem, opening doors to further treatments and interventions.

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