The History of Autism

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The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that approximately 1 in every 44 children in the US is diagnosed with autism as of 2021. Although the prevalence of autism has been on a steady rise since researchers first began to track it in 2000, experts attribute the rise to increased awareness of the condition. 

The chatter surrounding autism might be recent, but the condition itself isn’t. Although it has taken a lot of time for people to come to terms with and accept autism, the condition has always been with us. 

When Was It First Recognized? 

At first, there were a lot of descriptions of autism. It was thought of as a form of childhood schizophrenia. Later, it was thought to be caused by ‘Refrigerator mothers,’ a term coined for cold and distant mothers. 

Over the years, the description and diagnostic criteria for the condition have become more accurate. Leo Kanner, an Austrian-American physician and psychiatrist, was the first to describe the condition in 1943. He described children with delayed echolalia and how they wanted to maintain consistency in their lives. He also highlighted how these children were gifted in terms of intelligence and their extraordinary memory, which led Kanner to consider autism a psychiatric condition. 

Leo Kanner is also credited with diagnosing the first case of autism, which he came across in 1938 at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. The patient was Donald Triplett from Mississippi. 

Initially, Kanner could not diagnose Triplett, although he noted some similarities between schizophrenia and his condition. By 1943, Kanner had encountered ten more similar cases, all affecting children. That is when he published his article “Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact.” It outlined the basic symptoms of a disorder that would later come to be known as autism. However, it was not until 1980 that it was classified as its own disorder in a diagnostic manual. 

Developments in Treatment 

In the early years, autism was closely associated with severe psychiatric illnesses. Therefore, one of the early treatment approaches for autism was Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT). It was a controversial treatment at the time, but the methods used have improved and are currently used in treating other psychiatric illnesses. Also, ECT is still used in some cases, although very rarely. 


In the early 1920s, it was thought that autism was caused by toxic dietary factors. Changing a child’s diet was considered a possible treatment option. The nutritional recommendation might have since changed, but some parents and physicians still use restrictive diets to treat autism. 

Over the years, other common treatment methods developed included parentectomy (the removal of the child from their parent), aversive punishment, and holding therapy. 

Where We Stand Now

The greatest advancement in the diagnosis and treatment is the reconceptualization of autism. It changed how autism is treated entirely. 

Researchers and physicians could now consider pharmacological intervention by considering that autism is present from birth. It also allowed for it to be treated as a social and emotional disorder different from other mental illnesses. 

Modern treatments for autism include Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), the most successful, evidence-based treatment approach for ASD. It is considered a gold standard that encourages positive behavior while discouraging negative behavior. 

Pharmacological interventions have also led to the development of medicine that helps to significantly improve symptoms in children with moderate to severe ASD. 

The Bottom line 

There’s been a lot of progress in understanding autism. So much so that it is not considered a superpower in some circles, but it is a social and emotional condition given the impressive intellectual abilities of children with ASD. However, there is still more work and research that needs to be done to allow the world to learn how to communicate and care for children with autism. 

At The Special Needs Specialist, we have put together a course that will help you understand ASD better and make communication between you and those with autism more effective. Get in touch with us today for more information.

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