History of Autism Treatment

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The History of Autism Treatment

A developmental disability affecting behavior, communication, and social interaction, the term ‘autism’ was first used to describe symptoms of mental illness. Around 1911, Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler began referring to symptoms of schizophrenia as autism. Thirty years later, the term was used by medical doctors, specifically Leo Kanner, to describe emotionally and socially withdrawn children. In the same decade, German scientist Hans Asperger noticed a condition in children who had similar traits, but who were highly intelligent and who could speak. This condition is known today as Asperger’s syndrome.

Until the 1960s, though, autism continued to be thought of as a schizophrenic-like disorder. The condition was erroneously blamed on emotionally unattached mothering, too. As a result, children with autism were placed in foster care or institutionalized. When these placements failed to cure these children and researchers did not know what else to try, treatments in the 1960s and 70s included the drug LSD.

In a study of a dozen children with autism, Freedman, Ebin, and Wilson gave 10 boys and 2 girls varying oral doses of LSD at school in the morning. The children were not allowed to eat until the drug wore off. Furthermore, they were encouraged to remain mute while being observed. The children’s behavior was then observed and researchers reported that some became flushed and their pupils dilated. The behavioral effects varied; three children showed evidence of catatonia, while others experienced rapid mood swings, heightened anxiety, and both visual and auditory hallucinations. Although these researchers concluded that the drug did nothing to help these children, studies involving LSD continued. How? In the 1960s, ethical issues were not as clear as they are today. Parents of the children with autism were probably uninformed, or misinformed, of their consent rights and the effects of LSD.

Another controversy in the history of autism treatment involved aversion therapy, or electric shock. This type of therapy, in efforts to change behavior, was used to punish and inflict pain on children with autism. Surprisingly, electric shock therapy, as well as slapping, continued to be used as part of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), the conventional treatment for autism beginning in the 1970s. Some facilities still use this treatment and claim that it does control symptoms of autism in children. As medical professionals and educators began to have a separate understanding of autism, however, electric shock has not been part of ABA treatment in decades.

ABA and the use of highly structured behavioral programs, along with controlled learning environments, now serve as primary treatments for individuals with autism and autism spectrum disorders. Behavior analysis uses positive reinforcement to strengthen good behavior and develop communication, social, academic, and independent living skills. Many other treatments exist and can be combined with ABA, including a Gluten Free, Casein Free diet, occupational therapy, speech therapy, Sensory Integration Therapy, and Relationship Development Therapy. All of these are highly individualized and depend on individual needs. Most of all, these therapies center around the rights and best interests of individuals with autism.


Hirsch, D. (2009). History of autism. Retrieved September 17, 2010, from www.webmd.com/brain/autism/history-of-autism

Matson, J.L., & Minshawi, N.F. (2006). Early intervention for autism spectrum disorders: a critical analysis. Retrieved September 17, 2010, from books.google.com/books?id=XonQy12xCgEC&dq=freedman,+ebin&source=gbs_navlinks_s