The history of autism.
The understanding of what autism is has taken a very winding path from when it was first recognised to today.
The first recorded reference to autism was in the 18th century relating to a boy who lived in the wild in France. The first time the term autism was used was in 1910 by the Swiss psychiatrist Paul Bleuler when he was defining the symptoms of schizophrenia and described autism as a form of childhood schizophrenia.
Hans Asperger was an Austrian paediatrician. He gave the first definition of Asperger’s Syndrome in 1944 from his research on boys who showed little ability to form friendships and had an intense special interest. He referred to the children as ‘little professors’ because of their ability to talk about a favourite subject in detail and had the positive view that many would go on to use their special talents as they grew up.
At a similar time, in 1943, Leo Kanner, a psychiatrist from Austria, introduced the label ‘infantile autism’. He described characteristics such as ‘autistic aloneness’ and ‘insistence on sameness’. He was responsible for much confusion over the term and the belief that it was caused by ‘refrigerator mothers’ or cold parenting. These views persisted for a long time, even after they had been disproved.
It was not until the 1970s that autism was understood to be a set of developmental conditions with a biological cause in brain development. In 1981, a British researcher Lorna Wing was the first person to use the term ‘Asperger’s syndrome’ in a scientific paper which challenged the beliefs established by Kanner.
In 1987 it was recognised people could be affected to different degrees and the concept of autism was broadened. It was also first recognised as a separate diagnosis from Schizophrenia. In 2000 autism was categorised as a spectrum with a wide range of conditions including the different profiles.
It is only in the last few years that we are starting to develop a better understanding of how autism affects girls. Before this, it was thought of as primarily something that affects boys.