An Incomplete History of Autism


At this time in history, autism is depicted in popular culture more than ever. Television (The Good Doctor), video games (Overwatch), movies (The Accountant, Power Rangers), and television (The Big Bang Theory, Sesame Street and Parenthood) all depict individuals on the autism spectrum. 

While people on the autism spectrum are much more common in mainstream media, the history of autism is still generally unknown. 

Below is a general, and incomplete, timeline of Autism Spectrum Disorder

1908 – The word autism is first used to describe schizophrenic patients who are self-absorbed and withdrawn.

1943 – Leo Kanner, M.D., a child psychiatrist, publishes an account of 11 children who expressed “a powerful desire for aloneness” and “an obsessive insistence on persistent sameness”, but were also highly intelligent.  He would go on to call this condition “early infantile autism.” 

1944 – Hans Asperer, a German scientist, reported on cases of boys who had challenges with social interactions and specific obsessive interests.  He considered these individuals to have a “milder” form of autism, which would become known as Asperger’s Syndrome.

1964 – The Autism Society of America was founded by Bernard Rimland.

1967 – The term “refrigerator mother” was first used by Psychiatrist Bruno Bettelheim.  His theory was that autism was caused by mothers who did not love their children enough.  This is also the year that the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems classified Autism under schizophrenia.  Both ideas would soon be proven 100% false.

1980 – Autism is officially separated from schizophrenia.  Autism was added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – Third Edition (DSM-III)

1991 – The U.S. Government recognizes autism as a Special Education category and children diagnosed with autism are offered special services.

1994 – The National Alliance for Autism Research was founded.    It is the first organization in the U.S. devoted to raising funds for biomedical research focusing on Autism Spectrum Disorder.

1995 – Cure Autism Now (CAN) was founded by Jonathan Shestack and Portia Iversen.

2005 – Autism Speaks was founded by Bob and Suzanne Wright.

2013 – The DSM-5 no longer considers Asperger’s Syndrome as a condition separate from autism.  It goes on to define autism by two categories.  1.  Impaired social communication and/or interaction. 2. Restricted and repetitive behaviors.

What the future has in store for autism spectrum disorder is not yet known.  But understanding the past will help us understand the future.