Autism Spectrum Research: Over 100 Years of Landmarks

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The Beginnings of Autism

Autism spectrum research as seen today is vastly different from the initial studies and psychoanalytical theories in the beginning. In 1911, the term autism, derived from the Greek word autos, was used to describe the self-absorbed behaviors of patients with schizophrenia. In the early years of the 20th century, autism in children was believed to be diagnostic criteria for childhood onset schizophrenia. Doctors often diagnosed autistic children as schizophrenic or assumed they were mentally handicapped.

Many studies conducted between 1911 and today have since been debunked. However, their revelations paved the way for the modern understanding and treatment practices of today. Primarily, initial autism spectrum research helped to identify the disorder as separate from any form of mental illness. Unfortunately, some initial research led to myths and misconceptions that still abound today.

Autism Spectrum Research: Autism as a Separate Disorder

Dr. Leo Kanner, for whom Kanner Syndrome (classic autism) is named, first presented the idea of autism as a separate condition, not a symptom of schizophrenia or mental retardation, in an article titled Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact in 1943. While not the scientific autism spectrum research we expect today, Kanner used empirical data drawn from his professional experience, as well as 11 case studies of children in his care at Johns Hopkins.

Kanner reported these children exhibited no symptoms of schizophrenia, other than the self-absorbed symptoms Bleuler described as “autism” in 1911. He also noted these children had similar symptoms of mental retardation, but different psychometrics. His paper noted specific patterns to these children’s symptoms and behaviors unlike any other disorder or mental illness, including their tendency not to interact or notice parents, other children, or staff. Kanner’s observations and studies laid the groundwork for establishing autism as a separate disorder of the brain.

Refrigerator Mothers

Dr. Bruno Bettelheim, of the University of Chicago, published theories based on Kanner’s work in the late 1950s and ’60s. Coining the term “refrigerator mothers,” Bettelheim characterized the cause of autism as the lack of affection from the child’s mother. In fact, Dr. Bettelheim’s case studies and papers culminated in a book published in 1967 called The Empty Fortress: Infantile A__utism and the Birth of the Self. Unfortunately, Bettelheim’s papers had far-reaching negative effects on parents.

Kanner first noted in his case studies that relationships between parents and children with autism were cold and unemotional. Bettelheim seized on this information to further study and develop his own theory. Steeped in post World War II times, when Freudian concepts and psychoanalytical psychiatry ruled, Bettelheim proposed the theory of “refrigerator mothers.” These mothers failed to bond with their children in early development, resulting in autism, according to Bettelheim.

Bettelheim based his theories entirely on years of working with mentally ill children, as well as his experience and observation of concentration camp survivors. While the refrigerator mother theory was debunked, the idea of parental blame led to decades of shame and social stigmas. Parents today still find pockets of society that attribute their child’s challenges to poor parenting skills.

Continue to Page 2 for More Landmark Autism Research


Qualified, scientific autism spectrum research began in the mid to late 1960s. Research projects (such as those that later became known as a program called Treatment and Education of Autistic and Ccommunication-related handicapped Children -TEACCH) contributed the most to today’s modern treatment of autism. In 1964, the National Institutes of Mental Health sponsored Dr. Eric Schopler and colleagues at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in a study on the benefits of early intervention and educational treatment of children with autism.

The results of those studies, and subsequent research over the years has greatly influenced modern thought on autism treatment approaches. Dr. Schopler’s research helped to disprove psychoanalytical theories, such as refrigerator mothers, as the cause of autism. Additionally, research also showed that children with autism could improve with proper therapeutic and educational interventions.

In early 1998, the first genetic-related autism spectrum research study results were published. The International Molecular Genetic Study of Autism Consortium published their findings in relation to genetic markers found in 99 autistic children and their families. Since these findings were published, numerous research projects have found or confirmed additional genetic links and biomarkers. These results have all contributed to better diagnostic tools and testing, as well as providing insight into the causes of autism.

In 2008, another study funded by the National Institutes of Mental Health found two genetic clues relative to autism spectrum disorders. An inherited risk factor located on Chromosome 7, and a so-called “hot spot” on Chromosome 16 with a tendency for spontaneous mutation further link autism to genetic causes.

Doctors, scientists, and other research experts expect genetic studies to be the primary area of autism spectrum research going forward. Genetic findings contribute to better understanding of causes, possible preventative measures, as well as treatments.

References and Resources

Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, A Modern View of Autism

International Molecular Genetic Study of Autism Consortium

National Institutes of Mental Health

New World Encyclopedia, Bruno Bettelheim

TEACCH Research Report 1964 – 1995