When Was Autism Discovered?

Explore the fascinating journey of when autism was first discovered. Delve into the origins and milestones in understanding this unique neurodevelopmental condition that has come a long way over the years.

steven zauderer
Steven Zauderer
December 13, 2023
min read

Unraveling the History of Autism

To truly understand autism, it is essential to delve into its historical timeline. Early observations of behaviors associated with autism can be traced back many centuries, but it wasn't until the 20th century that significant strides were made in autism research.

The Early Observations

Throughout history, there have been accounts of individuals exhibiting behaviors that align with what we now recognize as autism. However, these observations were often misunderstood or attributed to other conditions.

Ancient texts and historical records mention individuals who displayed repetitive behaviors, social difficulties, and sensory sensitivities, which are characteristic features of autism. While these early accounts provide glimpses into the past, the understanding of autism as a distinct condition was yet to be established.

Pioneers in Autism Research

The recognition and classification of autism as a separate condition began to take shape in the early 20th century. It was during this time that several pioneers made significant contributions to autism research. Leo Kanner, an Austrian-American psychiatrist, is widely credited with providing the first comprehensive description of autism in 1943.

Kanner observed a group of children who displayed unique social and communication challenges, coining the term "early infantile autism" to describe this condition. His groundbreaking work laid the foundation for further research and understanding of autism.

Around the same time, Hans Asperger, an Austrian pediatrician, independently described a group of children who exhibited similar characteristics to those observed by Kanner. Asperger's work focused on what is now known as Asperger's syndrome, which is considered part of the autism spectrum. Asperger's contribution added to the growing body of knowledge about autism, expanding the understanding of its diverse presentation.

The early observations and the pioneering work of individuals like Kanner and Asperger paved the way for further exploration and understanding of autism. As we delve deeper into the historical timeline of autism, we can trace the evolution of diagnostic criteria, the recognition of the autism spectrum, and the development of various therapies and support systems.

As we progress through time, the understanding of autism has continued to evolve, leading to breakthroughs in research and advancements in support for individuals on the autism spectrum. In the next sections, we will explore the discoveries and developments that have shaped our current understanding of autism and the future directions of autism research and advocacy.

The Discovery of Autism

The journey to understanding autism has been marked by significant contributions from pioneering researchers. Two individuals whose work played a crucial role in the discovery and characterization of autism are Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger.

Leo Kanner's Groundbreaking Work

In the early 1940s, Leo Kanner, an Austrian-American psychiatrist, made groundbreaking observations that laid the foundation for our understanding of autism. In 1943, Kanner published a seminal paper titled "Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact," in which he described a group of children who exhibited a distinct set of characteristics.

These children displayed social and communication challenges, repetitive behaviors, and a preference for sameness. Kanner's work marked the first time that autism was identified as a distinct condition separate from other developmental disorders.

Kanner's observations were based on his clinical experiences with a small group of children, primarily boys, whom he described as having "autistic disturbances." His meticulous documentation and detailed case studies provided valuable insights into the unique features of autism. Kanner's work not only shed light on the characteristics of autism but also helped raise awareness about the condition within the medical community.

Hans Asperger's Contribution

Around the same time that Leo Kanner was conducting his research, Hans Asperger, an Austrian pediatrician, was independently studying a group of children who exhibited similar traits. In 1944, Asperger published a series of papers describing what he called "autistic psychopathy."

Asperger's work focused on individuals who displayed social difficulties, repetitive behaviors, and intense interests. He recognized that these individuals had unique strengths and abilities, which he referred to as "autistic intelligence."

Asperger's findings provided a valuable perspective on autism and highlighted the wide range of abilities and characteristics within the autism spectrum. Although his work initially went relatively unnoticed outside of the German-speaking world, it gained recognition and influence several decades later.

As a result, the term "Asperger's syndrome" was used to describe individuals with high-functioning autism until it was incorporated into the broader autism spectrum in recent years.

The contributions of Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger were pivotal in shaping our understanding of autism. Their pioneering work paved the way for further research and recognition of autism as a distinct developmental disorder.

As our understanding of autism continues to evolve, it is essential to acknowledge the contributions of researchers like Kanner and Asperger. Their work laid the groundwork for subsequent advancements in diagnosis, treatment, and support for individuals with autism.

Evolution of Understanding

As our understanding of autism has evolved over the years, there have been significant advancements in the diagnostic criteria and the recognition of autism as a spectrum disorder. Let's explore these key developments in the evolution of our understanding of autism.

Expansion of Diagnostic Criteria

In the early years of autism research, diagnostic criteria were limited and focused primarily on severe cases of autism. However, as our knowledge grew, so did our understanding of the broader range of individuals with autism. This led to the expansion of diagnostic criteria to include a wider spectrum of behaviors and characteristics associated with autism.

The expansion of diagnostic criteria allowed for a more inclusive approach to identifying individuals with autism. It recognized that autism exists on a continuum, with varying degrees of severity and a diverse range of traits and abilities. This shift in understanding has been crucial in ensuring that individuals with autism receive appropriate support and interventions tailored to their unique needs.

Recognition of Spectrum Disorders

Another significant development in the understanding of autism was the recognition of autism as a spectrum disorder. This recognition came about as researchers and clinicians observed that individuals with autism can present with a wide range of symptoms and abilities.

The concept of the autism spectrum acknowledges that there is a broad range of characteristics and challenges associated with autism. Some individuals may experience significant difficulties with communication and social interaction, while others may have relatively mild symptoms and excel in certain areas. Understanding autism as a spectrum highlights the importance of individualized approaches to support and intervention.

To provide a clearer picture of the spectrum, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) was updated in 2013. The DSM-5 introduced the term Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) to encompass the various subtypes previously identified, such as Asperger's Syndrome or Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS).

This shift in terminology aimed to promote a more comprehensive understanding of autism and ensure consistent diagnosis and support. The recognition of autism as a spectrum disorder has been instrumental in shaping the way we approach research, diagnosis, and support for individuals with autism. It acknowledges the diversity within the autism community and emphasizes the importance of embracing neurodiversity.

As we continue to advance our understanding of autism, it is crucial to consider the historical context and the progress made in recognizing autism as a spectrum disorder. By recognizing the expansion of diagnostic criteria and the diverse nature of the autism spectrum, we can better support individuals with autism and ensure they receive the necessary resources and interventions to thrive.

Shifting Perspectives and Approaches

As our understanding of autism has evolved, so too have the perspectives and approaches towards supporting individuals on the spectrum. This section explores two significant shifts in the field: the rise of behavioral therapies and the advances in the neurodiversity movement.

Rise of Behavioral Therapies

In the quest to support individuals with autism, behavioral therapies have played a crucial role. These therapies focus on modifying behavior, teaching new skills, and improving communication and social interactions. The rise of behavioral therapies has provided valuable tools for individuals with autism and their caregivers.

Behavioral therapies, such as Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), have gained prominence due to their evidence-based approach. ABA utilizes techniques like positive reinforcement and shaping to encourage desired behaviors and reduce challenging ones. This approach has shown significant success in areas such as language development, social skills, and daily living skills.

While behavioral therapies have been widely adopted, there is ongoing discourse regarding the balance between promoting independence and respecting the individuality of people with autism. The field continues to evolve, incorporating new insights and approaches to ensure the best possible outcomes for individuals on the spectrum.

Advances in Neurodiversity Movement

In recent years, the neurodiversity movement has gained momentum, advocating for the acceptance and celebration of neurological differences, including autism. This movement recognizes the value and unique strengths that individuals with autism bring to society.

The neurodiversity movement emphasizes the need to shift the focus from "fixing" or "curing" autism to creating a more inclusive and supportive environment. It promotes the understanding that autism is not a disorder to be eradicated but a different way of experiencing the world.

Through the neurodiversity lens, efforts are directed towards embracing and accommodating neurodivergent individuals, ensuring equal opportunities and access to support and resources. The movement emphasizes the importance of self-advocacy and empowering individuals with autism to have a voice in shaping their own lives.

As the neurodiversity movement gains traction, it has sparked discussions about the diversity of the autism spectrum and the need for a more nuanced understanding. This approach encourages society to appreciate the strengths and talents of individuals with autism, fostering a more inclusive and accepting world.

As we delve into the history of autism and its evolving understanding, it is important to recognize the contributions of behavioral therapies and the emergence of the neurodiversity movement. Both have shaped the way we approach and support individuals with autism, with a focus on empowerment, acceptance, and celebrating neurodiversity.

Current Understanding and Future Directions

As our understanding of autism has evolved over time, so too have the research and support efforts surrounding this complex neurodevelopmental condition. In this section, we will explore the current understanding of autism and the future directions in research and advocacy.

Research and Breakthroughs

In recent years, there have been significant advancements in autism research, leading to a deeper understanding of the condition. Scientists and researchers have made remarkable breakthroughs in various areas related to autism, including genetics, brain imaging, and early detection.

One critical area of research focuses on identifying the genetic factors that contribute to autism. Through extensive studies and genome-wide association analyses, researchers have discovered numerous genetic variations associated with autism. These findings have provided valuable insights into the underlying biological mechanisms involved in the development of autism.

Another area of research involves brain imaging techniques, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalography (EEG). These technologies allow scientists to observe and analyze the structural and functional differences in the brains of individuals with autism. These neuroimaging studies have shed light on the atypical brain connectivity patterns and neural processing that characterize the condition.

Early detection and intervention have also become significant areas of focus. Identifying autism at an early age allows for early intervention, which can lead to improved outcomes for individuals with autism.

Advocacy and Support for Individuals with Autism

Alongside research efforts, advocacy and support for individuals with autism have played a vital role in promoting awareness, acceptance, and inclusion. Advocacy organizations, support groups, and communities have emerged to provide a network of resources and assistance for individuals with autism and their families.

These organizations work tirelessly to raise public awareness about autism, break down stereotypes, and promote understanding and acceptance. They also advocate for policies and legislation that protect the rights of individuals with autism and ensure access to appropriate educational and healthcare services.

In addition to advocacy, there has been a growing focus on the concept of neurodiversity. The neurodiversity movement emphasizes the value of neurological differences, including autism, as a natural variation of human diversity. It seeks to challenge the notion of autism as a disorder and instead promotes acceptance and appreciation of neurodivergent individuals.

As we look to the future, it is crucial to continue supporting research efforts, advocating for the rights of individuals with autism, and fostering a society that values neurodiversity. By embracing the current understanding of autism and working towards a more inclusive and supportive world, we can ensure a brighter future for individuals on the autism spectrum.


Autism, as we know it today, was officially identified and labeled as a distinct condition in the early 20th century. It was first described by Dr. Leo Kanner in the United States and Dr. Hans Asperger in Austria in the 1940s. These pioneering doctors recognized the unique characteristics of the condition and introduced the world to the concept of autism.

However, it's essential to acknowledge that traits and behaviors associated with autism have likely existed throughout history, but they were not fully understood or categorized as a separate condition until the 20th century. Over time, our understanding of autism has evolved, leading to increased awareness, research, and support for individuals on the autism spectrum. Today, autism is recognized as a spectrum disorder with a wide range of characteristics and challenges.


steven zauderer

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

Table of Contents