What Was Autism Called Before It Was Called Autism?

Discover the historical journey of what we now know as autism and the different names it was called before. From 'childhood schizophrenia' to 'infantile psychosis,' this exploration reveals how our understanding of autism has evolved over time, shedding light on the journey towards a better comprehension of this complex condition.

steven zauderer
Steven Zauderer
December 13, 2023
min read

Understanding Autism

Autism is a complex neurological condition that affects individuals in various ways. To comprehend the journey of autism terminology, it is essential to first understand what autism is and recognize the significance of language in shaping our understanding of this condition.

What is Autism?

Autism, or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is a developmental disorder characterized by challenges in social interaction, communication, and repetitive behaviors. Individuals with autism often have unique strengths and differences in how they perceive and interact with the world. Autism is a lifelong condition that can manifest differently in each person, creating a rich and diverse autism community.

The Importance of Language in Autism

Language plays a pivotal role in our understanding and perception of autism. Over the years, the terminology used to describe autism has evolved as our knowledge and awareness of the condition has deepened. Examining the historical context of autism terminology allows us to trace the path from enigma to clarity.

In the past, autism was not widely recognized or understood. It was often misinterpreted or overlooked, leading to various terms and labels used to describe individuals who exhibited autistic traits. These historical names encompassed a range of descriptions, such as "idiot savant," "feeble-minded," or "childhood schizophrenia." Understanding the historical terms for autism provides insight into the shifting perspectives and societal attitudes towards this condition.

As our understanding of autism grew, so did the need for a specific term that accurately reflected the distinct characteristics and challenges associated with this condition. This led to the emergence of the term "autism" as we know it today.

By examining the historical context and the evolution of terminology, we can gain a deeper appreciation for the progress made in recognizing and understanding autism. It is important to recognize that the language we use to describe autism has a significant impact on how individuals with autism are perceived and treated.

In the following sections, we will delve into the early descriptions of autism, the work of influential researchers, and the evolving terminology and diagnostic criteria surrounding autism. Understanding the history of autism terminology allows us to appreciate the progress made and reflect on the importance of respectful and inclusive language when discussing autism today.

Early Descriptions of Autism

Autism, as we know it today, has not always been referred to by its current name. The terminology used to describe autism has evolved over time as our understanding of the condition has deepened. In this section, we will explore the origins of autism terminology and the historical labels that were once associated with the condition.

The Origins of Autism Terminology

The recognition and understanding of autism as a distinct condition began to take shape in the early 20th century. However, it wasn't until later that a specific term was coined to describe it. Before the term "autism" came into existence, individuals with autism were often misunderstood and categorized under different labels.

Historical Labels for Autism

In the past, various terms were used to describe the characteristics and behaviors associated with autism. These labels reflected the limited understanding and knowledge of the condition at the time. Some historical terms used to describe individuals who displayed autistic traits include:

Historical Term Description
Dementia Infantilis This term, meaning "childhood dementia," was used to describe individuals who exhibited developmental delays and intellectual disabilities. It was later associated with what we now understand as autism.
Schizophrenia In the mid-20th century, some individuals with autism-like behaviors were misdiagnosed with schizophrenia. This was due to the overlapping symptoms and the lack of awareness about the distinct nature of autism.
Childhood Schizophrenia Before autism was recognized as a separate condition, some professionals used the term "childhood schizophrenia" to describe children who exhibited social withdrawal and communication difficulties. This term was later found to be inaccurate as autism and schizophrenia are distinct disorders.
Early Infantile Autism This term was coined by renowned psychiatrist Leo Kanner in 1943, marking a significant milestone in autism terminology. Kanner's observations and research paved the way for a better understanding of autism as a unique developmental disorder.

These historical labels do not accurately capture the complexities and nuances of autism. They reflect the evolving understanding of the condition and the challenges faced in accurately identifying and describing it.

As we delve deeper into the history of autism terminology, it becomes evident that the journey to clarity and accurate representation has been a gradual one. The emergence of the term "autism" and subsequent advancements in diagnostic criteria and language have contributed to a more comprehensive understanding of this complex condition.

The Emergence of the Term "Autism"

The journey of understanding autism and its terminology has seen significant developments over time. In this section, we will delve into the work of Leo Kanner and the introduction of the term "autism."

The Work of Leo Kanner

In the early 20th century, Leo Kanner, an Austrian-American psychiatrist, made groundbreaking contributions to our understanding of autism. In 1943, Kanner published a seminal paper titled "Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact," which outlined the characteristics of a group of children he had observed.

Kanner's observations focused on a distinct set of features exhibited by these children, such as a preference for sameness, difficulties in social interactions, and a tendency towards repetitive behaviors. His work shed new light on a condition that had previously been misunderstood and overlooked.

The Introduction of the Term "Autism"

In his 1943 paper, Kanner used the term "autism" to describe the unique characteristics he observed in these children. Derived from the Greek word "autos," meaning "self," Kanner chose this term to emphasize the self-directedness and isolation that was prevalent among the children.

The introduction of the term "autism" marked a significant milestone in the field of developmental disorders. It provided a distinct label for the constellation of symptoms and behaviors that Kanner had identified. This newfound terminology paved the way for further research, diagnosis, and understanding of autism.

As we explore the history of autism terminology, it is important to acknowledge the contributions of pioneers like Leo Kanner, who laid the foundation for our current understanding of autism. The term "autism" continues to be widely recognized and used today, shaping our perception and discourse around this complex condition.

Evolving Terminology and Diagnostic Criteria

As our understanding of autism has grown over the years, so too has the terminology and diagnostic criteria associated with it. In this section, we will explore the changes in diagnostic criteria and the shifts in language and understanding surrounding autism.

Changes in Diagnostic Criteria

Diagnostic criteria for autism have undergone significant changes over time. In the past, the diagnosis of autism was based on a narrow set of behavioral characteristics, leading to variations in how it was identified and labeled. However, with advancements in research and clinical practice, diagnostic criteria have become more refined and comprehensive.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which is widely used for diagnosing autism, has undergone several revisions, each reflecting a deeper understanding of the condition. For example, the DSM-IV (published in 1994) introduced the term "autistic disorder" and outlined specific criteria for diagnosis. This was later updated in the DSM-5 (published in 2013), which merged several previously separate diagnoses into a single umbrella term, "autism spectrum disorder" (ASD).

The DSM-5 also introduced a dimensional approach to diagnosis, recognizing the diversity and varying severity of symptoms across individuals.

Shifts in Language and Understanding

Alongside changes in diagnostic criteria, there has been a shift in the language used to describe autism. Early terminology often focused on deficits and pathologies, emphasizing the challenges faced by individuals with autism. However, there has been a growing recognition of the importance of using respectful and person-centered language when discussing autism.

One notable shift has been the move towards person-first language and identity-first language. Person-first language places the individual before their diagnosis, emphasizing their humanity and unique qualities. For example, saying "a person with autism" instead of "an autistic person." On the other hand, identity-first language recognizes autism as an inherent part of an individual's identity.

This approach views autism as a neurodivergent trait that contributes to a person's identity and strengths. For instance, saying "an autistic person" instead of "a person with autism." Both perspectives have their supporters, and individuals may have personal preferences regarding the language used to describe them.

Respectful and inclusive language is crucial in promoting understanding and acceptance of individuals with autism. Using language that focuses on strengths, abilities, and the diversity within the autism community helps create a more inclusive and supportive society.

As our understanding of autism continues to evolve, so too will the terminology and diagnostic criteria surrounding it. It is essential to stay updated on current terminology and engage in ongoing conversations to ensure respectful and accurate representation of individuals with autism.

Person-First Language and Identity

When discussing autism, the choice of terminology is important in promoting understanding and respect. Two commonly used approaches to autism language are person-first language and identity-first language. Understanding the differences between these approaches can help foster a more inclusive and respectful discourse surrounding autism.

Person-First Language vs. Identity-First Language

Person-first language emphasizes the individual before their disability or condition. For example, using person-first language, one would say "a person with autism" rather than "an autistic person." This approach aims to prioritize the person's identity over their diagnosis and acknowledges that autism is just one aspect of their overall identity.

On the other hand, identity-first language recognizes that being autistic is an inherent part of a person's identity. Advocates of identity-first language argue that it is important to embrace and celebrate neurodiversity, treating autism as a natural variation rather than a disorder to be separated from the individual. Using identity-first language, one would refer to "an autistic person" to acknowledge and affirm their identity.

Individuals with autism have diverse preferences when it comes to language. Some prefer person-first language, while others prefer identity-first language. The key is to listen to and respect the preferences of the individuals themselves.

The Importance of Respectful Terminology

Respectful and inclusive language is crucial when discussing autism. It is important to remember that language shapes perceptions and attitudes. Using respectful and accurate terminology helps create a supportive environment and promotes understanding and acceptance.

By employing person-first or identity-first language, we can contribute to a more inclusive conversation that respects the diverse experiences and identities of individuals with autism. However, it is equally important to remember that language is just one aspect of promoting inclusivity. Genuine understanding and empathy go beyond terminology and involve active listening, education, and acceptance.

As we continue to learn and evolve in our understanding of autism, it is essential to engage in respectful dialogue and be open to the perspectives and preferences of individuals with autism. By doing so, we can foster an environment that embraces neurodiversity and empowers individuals to express their identities authentically.

In the next section, we will explore the current autism terminology and ongoing debates surrounding it. Stay tuned to learn more about how language continues to shape our perception of autism.

Looking Ahead

As we reflect on the history of autism terminology, it's important to consider the current state of autism terminology and ongoing debates surrounding it. The language used to describe autism has continued to evolve and adapt to reflect a better understanding of the condition. In this section, we will explore the current terminology and the role of language in shaping perception.

Current Terminology and Debates

In present times, the term "autism" is widely recognized and used to describe a range of neurodevelopmental conditions. However, there is ongoing debate within the autism community regarding the most appropriate terminology to use. Some individuals prefer person-first language, emphasizing the person before the diagnosis (e.g., "person with autism").

This approach aims to promote respect and avoid defining individuals solely by their diagnosis. Others prefer identity-first language, which recognizes autism as an integral part of a person's identity (e.g., "autistic person"). This perspective emphasizes embracing and celebrating autism as an inherent aspect of an individual's being.

The choice of terminology can be deeply personal, and it's essential to respect the preferences of individuals with autism. By actively listening and engaging in conversations with the autism community, we can foster an inclusive and supportive environment that values individual experiences and respects personal choices.

The Role of Language in Shaping Perception

Language plays a powerful role in shaping perceptions and attitudes towards autism. The words we use can influence how we understand and interact with individuals on the autism spectrum. Using accurate and respectful terminology is essential for fostering acceptance and understanding.

The shift from historical terms to the current understanding and acceptance of autism reflects a broader societal shift towards recognizing the strengths and capabilities of individuals with autism. Language that promotes inclusivity and acknowledges the unique experiences of individuals with autism helps to create a more compassionate and supportive society.

It is worth noting that language alone cannot fully capture the diverse experiences and complexities of autism. While terminology is important, it is equally crucial to recognize the individuality of each person on the spectrum and to approach each interaction with empathy, understanding, and respect.

As we continue to learn more about autism and its various dimensions, it is important to stay informed about current research and engage in ongoing conversations surrounding autism terminology. By keeping an open mind and embracing diverse perspectives, we can contribute to a society that values and respects the experiences and identities of individuals with autism.


Before autism was known as autism, it was referred to by various names that often didn't capture the full spectrum of the condition. Terms like "childhood schizophrenia" and "infantile psychosis" were used, but they didn't provide a clear understanding of the unique characteristics of autism. This summary delves into the historical terminology used for autism and how our understanding of the condition has evolved over time.


steven zauderer

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

Table of Contents