The History of Autism

Eileen Bailey Health Guide
  • The word “autism” was first used in 1908 by Dr. Eugen Bleuler, a Swiss psychiatrist. It wasn’t used as a diagnosis; instead it described a set of symptoms, including self-absorbtion, seen in a subset of people with schizophrenia. It wasn’t until several decades later, in the 1940s that the word autism was used to describe a specific set of symptoms unrelated to another condition. At the time, it was considered to be a rare disorder but today 1 in 88 children are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders. The following is a timeline of the evolution of autism.

    1908 (although some websites place this around 1911)

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    Dr. Eugen Bleurer used the term “autism” to describe withdrawn and self-absorbed behaviors in those with schizophrenia.


    During the 1940s, two people, Leo Kanner, a child psychiatrist at  the John Hopkins University and Hans Asperger, a doctor in Germany, both described behaviors such as withdrawal, poor social communication and intense interests. Both used the term autism. The two did not know each other and never discussed their work. Hans Asperger’s work was not well known until much later. Dr. Kanner was asked by a couple to evaluate their child, however, after two weeks of observation he did not have any idea what to diagnose the child with and, after evaluation of ten other children with similar symptoms, such as “a powerful desire for aloneness” and “an obsessive insistence on persistent sameness, came up with “autistic disturbance of affective contact” which was later changed to “early infantile autism.”

    1960s and 1970s

    Treatments for autism included LSD, electric shock and behavioral change techniques that included pain and punishment. During the late 1960s, a psychologist named Bruno Bettelheim theorized that emotionally cold mothers were the cause of autism and coined the term “refrigerator mothers.” He blamed a lack of love and affection for the symptoms of autism and would not include parents in therapy. At the time, autism was classified under schizophrenia in the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems.

    Bernard Rimland, a psychologist and parent of a child with autism, did not believe symptoms of autism were caused by bad parenting and published the book Infantile Autism: The Syndrome and its Implications for a Neural Theory of Behavior.

    After much research, by the late 1970s, research was showing that autism was a result of a combination of genetics and biological differences in brain development.

    1980s and 1990s

    In 1980, “infantile autism” was added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and separated from childhood schizophrenia. By the late 1980s, the term in the DSM was changed to autism disorder and included a checklist of symptoms for diagnosing autism. During this time, a psychologist at UCLA, Ivar Lovaas, published a study showing that intensive behavior therapy can help reduce symptoms of autism.

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    Research into autism continued and treatment methods evolved to controlled learning environments and behavioral therapy. These methods are still used today, although schools attempt to include children with autism in regular classrooms as much as possible,  along with language therapy

    During this time, many people became familiar with the term “autism” because of the movie Rain Man in 1988, however, many people associated only with savant behavior and assumed everyone with autism was the same or similar to the character in the movie.

    In 1991, the federal government added autism as a category eligible for special education. Public schools identified children with autism and began providing services.

    During the 1980s, the work of In 1994, the term Asperger’s syndrome was added to the DSM.

    A study linking vaccinations, specifically the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine, to autism was published. It was later retracted when the study was found to be flawed. Today, many studies have shown that there is not a link between vaccines and autism. Unfortunately, there are still some people that refuse to have their child vaccinated for fear of him or her developing autism.

    2000 to the Present

    Despite the fact that the study linking vaccines to autism was shown to be false, vaccine manufacturers removed thimerosal (a mercury-based preservative) to help alleviate any fears about vaccines.

    In 2007, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 1 in 150 children have autism spectrum disorder. This number was revised in 2009 to 1 in 110 and has since been changed to 1 in 68 children in the United States.  

    In 2013, changes were made to the DSM and the term autism spectrum disorder was used as an umbrella term which includes symptoms of impaired social communication and restrictive/repetitive behaviors. The category of Asperger’s syndrome is removed from the DSM.


    “Autism History, Updated 2014, Jan 14, Dr. Ananya Mandal, News Medical

    “Autism Project,” Date Unknown, Staff Writer, University of South Carolina School of Medicine

    “Autism’s First Child,” 2010, Aug 30, John Donvan and Caren Zucker, The Atlantic

    “Data & Statistics, 2014, Staff Writer, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Published On: October 21, 2014