History & Timeline Of Autism

The history of autism is a fascinating one, and it has been the subject of much research and study over the years.

What's the History Of Autism?

Autism is a complex neurological disorder that affects communication, social interaction, and behavior. It is believed to be a spectrum disorder, meaning that it manifests in different ways and with varying degrees of severity. The history of autism is a fascinating one, and it has been the subject of much research and study over the years.

Early History Of Autism

Although the term "autism" was not coined until the early 20th century, there is evidence to suggest that the condition has been present throughout human history. Some researchers point to descriptions in ancient texts that may indicate the presence of autism-like symptoms.

Autism History Timeline

Autism has a complex history that dates back to the early 20th century. Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler first used the term "autism" in 1908 to describe a group of symptoms he observed in patients with schizophrenia. Since then, there have been significant developments in understanding and diagnosing autism, including:

  • In 1943, Leo Kanner published a paper describing a group of children with similar symptoms, coining the term "early infantile autism."
  • In 1944, Hans Asperger described a milder form of autism that later became known as Asperger's syndrome.
  • In the 1960s, researchers began to study the role of genetics in the development of autism.
  • In the 1980s, diagnostic criteria for autism were revised and "autism spectrum disorder" became the preferred term.
  • In 1991, the organization now known as Autism Speaks was founded by Bob Wright and Suzanne Wright.
  • In 2009, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that about 1 in every 110 children had been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.
  • In 2010, Andrew Wakefield lost his medical license and was barred from practicing medicine following the retraction of his autism paper.
  • In 2013, the DSM-5 combined autism, Asperger’s, and childhood disintegrative disorder into autism spectrum disorder.
  • In 2014, the Autism Collaboration, Accountability, Research, Education and Support (CARES) Act was signed into law by the president.
  • As of 2020, the CDC has determined that 1 in 54 children have been identified with an autism spectrum disorder.

The Early 20th Century

It was not until the early 20th century that autism began to be recognized as a distinct disorder. In 1908, the Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler used the term "autism" to describe the tendency of individuals with schizophrenia to withdraw from social interaction. However, it was not until the 1940s that autism was recognized as a separate condition.

In 1943, the American psychiatrist Leo Kanner published a groundbreaking paper that described a group of children who displayed a distinct set of symptoms, including a lack of interest in social interaction and a preoccupation with objects. Kanner called this condition "early infantile autism," and his work is considered to be the foundation of modern autism research.

The 1960s and 1970s

In the 1960s and 1970s, researchers began to focus more on the causes of autism. During this time, a number of theories were proposed, including the idea that autism was caused by poor parenting or an emotional disturbance in the child.

However, it was also during this time that researchers began to identify a genetic component to autism. In 1977, a team of researchers led by Michael Rutter published a study that found a higher incidence of autism in families with a history of the disorder.

The 1980s and 1990s

In the 1980s and 1990s, the diagnostic criteria for autism were refined, and the disorder began to be recognized more widely. In 1980, the American Psychiatric Association included autism in the third edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III).

During this time, researchers also began to explore the role of environmental factors in the development of autism. One theory that gained traction was the idea that the MMR vaccine (measles, mumps, and rubella) was responsible for an increase in autism cases. However, numerous studies have since debunked this theory.

The 21st Century

In the 21st century, autism research has continued to advance. In 2007, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that 1 in 150 children in the United States had autism. Today, that number has risen to 1 in 54.

Research has also shed light on the complex genetic and environmental factors that contribute to autism. For example, a study published in Nature in 2019 identified 102 genes that contribute to the development of autism.

How was autism treated in the past?

In the past, autism was often misunderstood and misdiagnosed. Treatment methods were largely based on the prevailing theories of the time, which ranged from psychoanalytic approaches to behavioral modification techniques. Some treatments involved institutionalization or even shock therapy.

One early treatment for autism was known as "refrigerator mother theory," which suggested that children with autism were emotionally cold and unresponsive due to a lack of maternal warmth. This theory has since been discredited, but it led to many parents being blamed for their child's condition.

In the 1960s and 1970s, behaviorism became a popular approach to treating autism. This involved using rewards and punishments to modify behavior. Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is still used today as a treatment for autism, but it has evolved significantly since its early days.

Other treatments that have been tried in the past include sensory integration therapy, facilitated communication, and chelation therapy. However, none of these treatments have been shown to be effective in treating autism, and some can even be harmful.

Today, there are a variety of evidence-based treatments available for individuals with autism, including ABA therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy, and medication. The goal of these treatments is to help individuals with autism develop communication skills, social skills, and independence so that they can lead fulfilling lives.

Autism Today

Autism today is more widely recognized and understood than ever before. There are now many resources available for individuals with autism and their families, including support groups, therapies, and educational programs.

One of the biggest challenges facing individuals with autism today is access to appropriate care and services. In many parts of the world, there is a shortage of trained professionals who can diagnose and treat autism. This can result in long waiting lists for services or a lack of services altogether.

Despite these challenges, there have been many advances in understanding and treating autism. Researchers continue to explore the genetic and environmental factors that contribute to the disorder, as well as new treatments that can help individuals with autism lead fulfilling lives.

One promising area of research is the use of technology to assist individuals with autism. For example, there are now apps and other tools available that can help with communication, social skills development, and sensory processing. These technologies have the potential to greatly improve the quality of life for individuals with autism.

Another important development in recent years has been the growing acceptance of neurodiversity. This refers to the idea that neurological differences like autism should be celebrated rather than stigmatized. Many advocates for neurodiversity argue that society needs to change its attitudes towards people with autism so that they can be fully included in all aspects of life.

Overall, while there is still much work to be done in terms of understanding and supporting individuals with autism, there is also reason for hope. With continued research and advocacy efforts, it is possible to create a world where everyone has access to the resources they need to thrive.


The history of autism is a complex and fascinating one. From the ancient texts that may describe autism-like symptoms to the groundbreaking research of Leo Kanner, autism research has come a long way over the years. Today, researchers continue to explore the causes, diagnosis, and treatment of autism, and there is hope that one day we may be able to better understand and support individuals with this complex disorder.