History & Timeline Of Autism: When Was It First Diagnosed?

It has been more than 50 years since Leo Kanner first described his classic autistic syndrome. Find a timeline of autism's history below.

steven zauderer
Steven Zauderer
September 20, 2023
min read

When Was Autism First Diagnosed?

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects communication, social interaction, and behavior. It is a spectrum disorder, meaning that it affects individuals differently and to varying degrees.

The history of autism dates back to the early 20th century, when it was first identified by Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler.

Bleuler used the term "autism" to describe a group of symptoms that he observed in patients with schizophrenia.

He noticed that some of his patients exhibited a withdrawal from social interaction, a lack of interest in others, and an inability to communicate effectively. Bleuler believed that these symptoms were related to the patients' underlying psychological condition, rather than a separate disorder.

history of autism

It wasn't until the 1940s that autism was recognized as a distinct disorder. In 1943, Leo Kanner, a child psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins University, published a paper describing a group of children who exhibited similar symptoms to those observed by Bleuler. Kanner coined the term "early infantile autism" to describe the disorder.

Around the same time, Hans Asperger, an Austrian pediatrician, identified a milder form of autism that became known as Asperger's syndrome.

Asperger's syndrome is characterized by difficulties with social interaction and communication, as well as repetitive behaviors and interests.

In the decades that followed, researchers continued to study autism and its causes. In the 1960s, researchers began to focus on the role of genetics in the development of autism.

They found that autism was more common in families with a history of the disorder, suggesting that there may be a genetic component to the disorder.

In the 1980s, the diagnostic criteria for autism were revised, leading to an increase in the number of children diagnosed with the disorder. This increase led to a greater awareness of autism and a push for more research into the disorder.

Today, autism is recognized as a complex disorder with a range of symptoms and severity. Researchers continue to study the causes of autism and develop new treatments and therapies to help individuals with the disorder.

While there is still much to learn about autism, the history of the disorder has helped to increase awareness and understanding of this important condition.

Autism History Timeline

The history of autism can be traced back to the early 20th century, when Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler used the term "autism" to describe a group of symptoms he observed in patients with schizophrenia. Here's a timeline of some key events in the history of autism:

  • 1908: Eugen Bleuler first uses the term "autism."
  • 1943: Leo Kanner publishes a paper describing a group of children with similar symptoms, coining the term "early infantile autism."
  • 1944: Hans Asperger describes a milder form of autism that later became known as Asperger's syndrome.
  • 1960s: Researchers begin to study the role of genetics in the development of autism.
  • 1980s: Diagnostic criteria for autism are revised and "autism spectrum disorder" becomes the preferred term.
  • 1991: The organization now known as Autism Speaks is founded by Bob Wright and Suzanne Wright.
  • 2009: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that about 1 in every 110 children has been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.
  • 2010: Andrew Wakefield loses his medical license and is barred from practicing medicine, following the retraction of his autism paper.
  • 2013: The DSM-5 combines autism, Asperger’s, and childhood disintegrative disorder into autism spectrum disorder.
  • 2014: The president signs the Autism Collaboration, Accountability, Research, Education and Support (CARES) Act of 2014.
  • 2020: The CDC determines 1 in 54 children have been identified with an autism spectrum disorder.

What was autism called in the 1980s?

In the 1980s, autism was commonly referred to as "infantile autism" or "childhood autism." These terms were used to describe a range of symptoms that affected children's ability to communicate, socialize, and engage in repetitive behaviors.

However, as researchers learned more about the disorder and its varied presentations, the term "autism spectrum disorder" (ASD) came into use.

The term reflects the fact that autism affects individuals differently and to varying degrees, from mild social difficulties to severe impairments in communication and behavior. Today, ASD is the preferred term for describing this complex disorder.

How was autism treated in the past?

In the past, there was very little understanding of autism and its causes, which meant that treatments for the disorder were often ineffective or harmful. One common approach to treating autism in the mid-20th century was psychoanalysis.

This involved attempting to uncover unconscious conflicts and traumas that were believed to underlie the symptoms of autism. However, this approach did not address the underlying neurological differences that cause autism and was therefore not effective.

Other treatments included behavioral interventions such as punishment and reward techniques. These techniques aimed to modify behavior by punishing negative behaviors and rewarding positive ones.

While some parents reported improvements in their children's behavior with these methods, they were often criticized for being too harsh and lacking in scientific evidence.

In the 1960s, researchers began to explore other treatment options for autism, including medication. Some medications were found to be effective in reducing certain symptoms of autism, such as aggression and anxiety. However, there were also concerns about side effects and long-term safety.

Today, treatment for autism involves a range of approaches tailored to each individual's needs. Behavioral therapies such as Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) are commonly used, as well as speech therapy and occupational therapy.

Medications may also be prescribed to manage specific symptoms of the disorder. While there is still much to learn about how best to treat autism, advances in research have led to more effective treatments that can help individuals with the disorder lead fulfilling lives.

steven zauderer

CEO of CrossRiverTherapy - a national ABA therapy company based in the USA.

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