Autism History

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The term autism first was used by psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler in 1908. He used it to describe a schizophrenic patient who had withdrawn into his own world. The Greek word ''autós'' meant self and the word “autism” was used by Bleuler to mean morbid self-admiration and withdrawal within self.

The pioneers in research into autism were Hans Asperger and Leo Kanner. They were working separately in the 1940’s. Asperger described very able children while Kanner described children who were severely affected. Their views remained useful for physicians for the next three decades.

Chronological history of autism

  • Eugen Bleuler coined the word "autism" in 1908 among severely withdrawn schizophrenic patients.
  • In 1943 American child psychiatrist Leo Kanner studied 11 children. The children had features of difficulties in social interactions, difficulty in adapting to changes in routines, good memory, sensitivity to stimuli (especially sound), resistance and allergies to food, good intellectual potential, echolalia or propensity to repeat words of the speaker and difficulties in spontaneous activity.
  • In 1944 Hans Asperger, working separately, studied a group of children. His children also resembled Kanner’s descriptions. The children he studied, however, did not have echolalia as a linguistic problem but spoke like grownups. He also mentioned that many of the children were clumsy and different from normal children in terms of fine motor skills.
  • Next Bruno Bettelheim studied the effect of three therapy sessions with children who he called autistic. He claimed that the problem in the children was due to coldness of their mothers. He separated the children from their parents. Kanner and Bettelheim both worked towards making hypothesis that showed autistic children had frigid mothers
  • Bernard Rimland was a psychologist and parent of a child with autism. He disagreed with Bettelheim. He did not agree that the cause of his son’s autism was due to either his or his wife’s parenting skills. In 1964, Bernard Rimland published, Infantile Autism: The Syndrome and its Implications for a Neural Theory of Behavior.
  • Autism came to be better known in the 1970’s. The Erica Foundation started education and therapy for psychotic children in the beginning of the 80s. Many parents still confused autism with mental retardation and psychosis.
  • It was in 1980’s that Asperger’s work was translated to English and published and came into knowledge.
  • It was in the 1980’s that research on autism gained momentum. It was increasingly believed that parenting had no role in causation of autism and there were neurological disturbances and other genetic ailments like tuberous sclerosis, metabolic disturbances like PKU or chromosomal abnormalities like fragile X syndrome.
  • Lorna Wing, along with Christopher Gillberg at BNK (Children's Neuro-Psychiatric Clinic) in Sweden in the 1980’s found the Wing’s triad of disturbed mutual contact, disturbed mutual communication and limited imagination. In the 1990’s they added another factor making it a square. The factor was limited planning ability.
  • Ole Ivar Lovaas studied and furthered behavioural analysis and treatment of children with autism. Lovaas achieved limited success at first with his experimental behaviour analysis. He developed it to target younger children (less than 5 years of age) and implemented treatment at home and increased the intensity (a measurement of the amount of “therapy time”) to about 40 hours weekly. Lovaas wrote Teaching Developmentally Disabled Children: The Me Book in 1981. In 2002, Lovaas wrote, Teaching Individuals With Developmental Delays: Basic Intervention Techniques.

Further Reading

Last Updated: Jul 7, 2023

Dr. Ananya Mandal

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Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.


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  1. Amanda Altamirano Amanda Altamirano United States says:

    Dr. Bettleheim was right! As a teacher, I have seen a bunch of autistic people and not one of them didn't have a refrigerator mother or a damaged father (one or the other).

    • Verbal Orchid Verbal Orchid United States says:

      I am FAR from a frigid or distant mother, and my daughter is autistic. Her father is quiet, intelligent, and non-violent in either speech or manner. Theory = DISPROVED.

      • Hilary Gratzinger Bowden Hilary Gratzinger Bowden United States says:

        I agree with you my son is autistic and I am far from frigid! My husband is a high functioning autistic with a way above normal IQ, my 3 year old autistic son can tell you the difference between a hexagon, pentagon, and octagon.  Autism is not bad it is a different way of thinking.  I am supportive and my husband is too.  He knows that he is the only one that will truly be able to relate to our son.  I am working on my bachelors to be a teacher and I found Amanda Altamiranos comment offensive!

      • bii mathis bii mathis United States says:

        I have autism. I tend to DISMISS “frigid motherhood” as a primary causal force of my autism. I say this even though I have a mother that “roughly” equates the working definition of the “frigid”.

        That said, the theory in question can neither be proven or disproven by means of the anecdotal.

        The comment you responded was anecdotal. So was the answer you offered as proof.

        As a person of science, I can not fully discount the research of dr Bettelheim and his conclusions. That said, his conclusions are overly simplistic to suggest that a personality profiles of the mothers  in question explain the causes of autism or even the autism I experience.

        That said, I have found that the personality profile of “certain“ of the mothers considered to be “frigid“ can exacerbate the symptomology their children experience. And this can greatly overwhelm the child in question making it that much harder for the child to succeed or grow.

        Please trust me. This happens.

        But then there are the mothers like you who DO NOT fit the profile of “frigid motherhood” yet still have children that SUFFER from a condition you did not cause. Your child is blessed to have you.

    • Mary Healey Mary Healey United States says:

      AS a teacher of over 40 years,it's really sad to hear an educator display such a "lack of awareness and education". WE all know that in the field of Science there are never"absolutes"; and evolving discoveries will always change the way we view any subject.  HOw then ,can an educator propose such condonement of sheer egoism on the part of some Dr.? Shouldn't educators be the ones teaching our youth to check the facts ,no matter where the statement arises?

      • bii mathis bii mathis United States says:

        If I may offer another interpretation of what you said re science.

        I have found that science is absolutely in the business of discovering the absolute. But with the human condition comes great imperfection in our facilities and functions. In this foundation empiricism was created and refined.

        So when I “see” light it is an absolute that it exists. Science has proven that much. But with each absolute science can prove via Empirical methodology, even more questions are created with the discovery of the absolute.

        And that’s why I love science. Because it does discover absolutes whilst creating even more juicy questions for the insatiably curious to tackle.

        Just food for thought😁

    • Chris-Anna Mathews Chris-Anna Mathews United States says:

      It has nothing to do with vaccines either they have done research on this and debunked it

  2. Yanelis Salazar Yanelis Salazar United States says:

    I just cannot believe that you are a teacher!! How can you say such a thing? Yes, your comment is really offensive. I am doing my Bachelors in Especial Education and I hope you can find more current information about the subject. Besides, you need to because you are a teacher. For your information, that theory is completely disproved.

  3. TRISTAN LILA TRISTAN LILA United States says:

    I'm an autist, and know way more stuff than most 13 year olds. though i am still socially impaired

  4. Staci Nelson Staci Nelson United States says:

    Grunya Efimovna Sukhareva (Груня Ефимовна Сухарева) (1891-1981) Russian woman

    She wrote an articles on kids about 20 years before Kanner and in researching found where they think Hans did read her articles.

The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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