Autism- A History

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Today, in continuation from my post exploring autism through the ages, I’d like to give you a brief intro into how we came to know of  autism.

So how about a bedtime story then Earthlings? 🙂

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A long time ago in the land of Austria, two researchers were born that would go on to make medical history- Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger. Whilst these men interestingly did not collaborate, together their respective research laid the groundwork for our current understanding of ASD’s.

So how did it all begin?

Whilst some of the earliest documented cases of autism dates back to the 1700’s, the new Latin term autismus (“isolated self”) was first coined by Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler (who also coined the term schizophrenia) in 1910. Derived from the Greek word “autós” (meaning ‘self’), Bleuler used the term to describe a sub group of people with schizophrenia that were removed from social interaction.

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The term autism first began to take it’s modern form in 1938 when Hans Asperger adopted the term ‘autistic psychopaths’ in a German lecture on child psychology. During this period, Asperger was investigating the ASD which would later bear his name, examining a group of four boys of normal intelligence who struggled with social integration and empathy. Asperger dubbed these boys “little professors” due to their ability to lecture at length on their favourite subjects!

Fun Fact: Asperger himself is widely thought to have displayed many of the symptoms of his discovery himself!

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In 1944 Asperger published an article in German titled ‘Autistic psychopathy’ in childhood, a publication which largely went unnoticed within the English speaking medical community until the 1980s when child psychiatrist Lorna Wing brought his work into the limelight.

This obscurity was also due in part to the work of his contemporary Leo Kanner at the prestigious John Hopkins University in the USA, who pipped Asperger to the post with his paper Autistic Disturbance of Affective Contact in 1943.

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In this work, Kanner described a group of 11 (8 boys, 3 girls) socially isolated children with a “need for sameness” and a “resistance to (unexpected) change.” Kanner claimed to have discovered a new medical condition which he named “infantile autism”, garnering much attention and praise within the medical community.

But was it coincidence that these men happened to work in tandem on such similar projects 4000 miles apart?

In his lifetime, Kanner claimed that he had never heard of Asperger’s work, however, it would appear that this was not the truth.

Author Steve Silberman has since discovered that Kanner likely heard of Asperger’s work through George Frankl- a work colleague from Vienna, and former chief diagnostician at Asperger’s clinic in 1938. Driven by an ambition to make his mark on medical history, it would appear that Kanner sought to recreate Asperger’s work in America, repacked it and claimed it as his own!!

Image result for fainting gifPoor Asperger- but at least his name lives on in Asperger’s syndrome! 🙂

 

So what did these early researchers believe to be the root of autism?

Difficult as it may be to imagine, Kanner firmly believed in something called the “refrigerator mother hypothesis“- a since (rightly) discarded theory which claimed that autism is caused by a lack of maternal warmth or love!!!

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I know!!!!!

Madness!

In addition to this, Kanner’s reuse of Bleuler’s term autism resulted in decades of confused terminology where autism and schizophrenia were one and the same.

Thankfully, the research caught up to give us a clearer insight into the physiological roots of autism (although it took about 20 years for the experts to catch on! 😛 ), leading to the establishment of autism (and later Aspergers syndrome in 1994) as a separate diagnosis in it’s own right in 1980.

And that is the history of autism dear Earthlings, I hope you enjoyed your bedtime story! 😉

Enjoy the weekend everyone! 😀

Aoife

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