The history of autism as a recognized disorder has involved a number of discoveries, experiments, and methods of treating those with a diagnosis. Once considered akin to schizophrenia and treated through approaches such as electric shock therapy, autism is currently managed primarily through behavior therapy. The following researchers have all made contributions to the understanding of autism and related disorders such as Asperger’s syndrome:
Eugen Bleuler, an early 20th century psychiatrist, was the first to use the term “autism” to describe patients with social interaction deficits. The Swiss-born Bleuler derived the word autism from the Greek word autos (“self”), and started including the term in his research findings in 1911. Bleuler described autism as a set of behaviors that indicated a form of adult schizophrenia. This early understanding of autism was altered during the 1940s by the findings of Leo Kanner, a psychiatrist and physician, and Hans Asperger, a scientist and pediatrician.
Leo Kanner, an Austrian psychiatrist who conducted his research from Johns Hopkins University, studied the behaviors of children with social and emotional delays. Kanner adapted the word “autism” to describe children who began to display emotional detachment from human beings while in their early toddler years. His research took place over a period of five years (from 1938 until 1943) and involved observation of eleven children with characteristics of autism.
Today, “Kanner’s autism” (autistic disorder) is the diagnosis given to individuals who display deficits in verbal and non-verbal communication and social communication. Children with Kanner’s autism also exhibit repetitive behaviors and struggle with creative play.
Hans Asperger was born in Austria and worked at the Vienna University Children’s Hospital. After observing a group of young boys who displayed a pattern of behaviors that resembled those of children with autism, Asperger wrote a paper describing these traits–high verbal ability, intense interest in a certain subject, awkward gait, difficulties in making conversation and forming friendships, and lack of empathy. This was the first description of “Asperger’s syndrome”, a high-functioning autism spectrum disorder.
Asperger believed that the children he observed had certain talents that would allow them to be productive in adulthood. The formal recognition of Asperger’s syndrome began in the 1980s and 1990s.
Autism in the DSM
The classification of autism spectrum disorders in the Diagnostics and Statistics Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) has changed significantly throughout history:
--In the DSM-I (1952) and the DSM-II (1968), autism-related behaviors were classified under the diagnosis of childhood schizophrenic reaction.
--In the DSM-III (1980), autism was classified as a separate disorder with six distinct symptoms. Autism was first referred to as “infantile autism”, then changed to “autistic disorder”.
--In the DSM-IV (1994), autistic disorder was grouped with four other disorders (Asperger’s, Rett’s, Childhood Disintegrative, and PDD-NOS) under the classification of pervasive developmental disorders.
The history of autism spectrum disorders is continually being expanded upon, as 21st century scientists and researchers attempt to gain new insights on the different types of these disorders and the effectiveness of certain treatments.