Autism does not have a long history, and this is due to the fact that the history of autism really didn’t begin until the first decade of the 20th century. Although, autism as a condition was around prior to this time, it was not a recognized condition and most people would have been regarded as insane. In fact, it wasn’t even until the Swiss psychiatrist, Eugene Bleuler, coined the term “autism” in the 1912 issue of the American Journal of Insanity, did the term even exist.
However, despite being the first person to use the term, Bleuler considered autism to be another form of schizophrenia in which schizophrenic’s lacked social skills with others, and were more absorbed in themselves. Bleuler’s study was the beginning of the history of autism.
Although Bleuler may have been the first to recognize one of the most common traits of autistics, there were three other pioneers of autism who really set the wheels of autism research in motion. These three doctors had a huge impact on what people believed autism was in the mid 1900’s, as well as how the disorder is recognized today.
Dr. Leo Kanner – (1894 – 1981) – Dr. Leo Kanner was an Austrian-American psychiatrist, who was one of the first to specialize in child psychology. Kanner, a doctor at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital, is credited with recognizing autism as its own unique mental disorder. According to the history of autism, Kanner created the label early infantile autism, which he wrote about in 1943 in the journal “The Nervous Child”.
In his report, Kanner discussed his research based on a group of eleven children who all closely displayed the following traits:
Social interaction difficulties
Difficulty processing and adapting to changes
Particularly good memory
Belated echolalia (repeating speech made by others)
Exceedingly sensitive to sounds, and other stimulants
Good intellectual potential
He used the term autism to describe the main characteristic all the children he studied displayed – little to no interest in socializing with other people.
Dr. Hans Asperger (1906-1980) – Dr. Hans Asperger, was a scientist and pediatrician. He is best known in the history of autism for defining Asperger Syndrome – a specific type of high functioning autism. The first time he defined Asperger syndrome was in 1944, when he studied 4 young boys and, like Kanner, found that each child displayed similar characteristics. He identified these characteristic behaviors as autistic psychopathy.
Although Asperger identified most of the same traits as Kanner, he didn’t note his group having delayed echolalia. Alternatively, he said that the children had clumsy movements and irregular motor skills compared to regular children, and also that they talked much like grown ups. Asperger referred to them as “little professors”.
Unfortunately, the findings of Dr. Hans Asperger regarding autism were not widely discovered until the late 1980’s even though his reports occurred much earlier in the history of autism. It is believed that there were two main reasons why Asperger did not receive the recognition he deserved until much later than his original observations. The first reason was his findings were delayed due to World War II. The second was that his work wasn’t written in English and was not translated until almost 50 years later.
Dr. Bruno Bettelhiem (1903-1990) – Bruno Bettelheim was an Austrian-American writer and child psychologist. Bettelheim developed his own theories on autism and is best known for his theory of the “refrigerator mother”. In his work “The Empty Fortress”(1967), Bettelheim wrote about three therapy sessions with children who had infantile autism. He claimed that their disorder was caused by having emotionally cold mothers. His theory was widely accepted, and for many years, parents (particularly mothers) were considered the problem behind autism.
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Today, Bettelhiem’s theory has been disregarded by most. However, the characteristics described by Kanner and Asperger are still used to define the basic behavioral patterns of autistics. Nevertheless, all of these men have made a serious mark on the history of autism.
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