The History of Autism: A Timeline

The description and diagnosis of autism have changed significantly over the years. Today, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-5 (DSM-5) in the US describes it as autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Here is a timeline of events that led up to this diagnosis:

1911: Eugen Bleuler, a Swiss psychiatrist, was the first person to use the term autism to refer to a group of symptoms related to schizophrenia. The word autism comes from the Greek word “autos”, which means “self”.

1926: In a scientific German psychiatry and neurology journal, a child psychiatrist from Kiev, Russia, Grunya Sukhareva, wrote about six children with autistic traits.

1943: Leo Kanner, an Austrian-American psychiatrist, published a paper about 11 children with high intelligence but who displayed a desire for aloneness and obsessive insistence on sameness. He later described their condition as early infantile autism.

1944: Hans Asperger, an Austrian pediatrician, described a “milder” form of autism, which is known as Asperger’s Syndrome. He reported cases where the patients were all boys and had high intelligence but had problems in social interactions.

1967: Bruno Bettelheim, an Austrian-born psychologist, popularized the theory that autism was the result of cold and inattentive mothers, coining the term “refrigerator mothers”. This theory has been debunked solidly. At this time, researchers did not consider the biology or genetics involved but only looked at the impact of life experiences.

1977: A twin research found some genetic and biological differences in brain development involved with autism.

1980: For the first time, “infantile autism” is listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders III (DSM-III), differentiating it from the diagnosis of childhood schizophrenia.

1987: The DSM now calls the condition “autism disorder” instead of  “infantile autism”, which is a much more expansive definition. The manual also included a checklist for diagnostic criteria to eliminate the lack of consistency between diagnoses made by clinicians.

1990: Autism is included as a disability category in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This made it possible for autistic children to get special education services.

1994: Asperger syndrome is added to the DSM as an addition to the autism spectrum to represent milder cases where individuals tend to be high functioning.

1996Dr. Temple Grandin, an American scientist and animal behaviorist, wrote “Emergence—Labeled Autistic”, which described her life with autism.

1998: A study was published in “The Lancet” that was later retracted suggesting that the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine caused autism. Later on, many other studies quickly debunked this theory and the article was retracted. However, the idea that vaccines cause autism is still somewhat of a popular misconception.

1999: The Autism Awareness Puzzle Ribbon was adopted by the Autism Society as the universal sign of autism awareness.

2000: Related to the theory that MMR vaccines cause autism, vaccine manufacturers removed thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative that had been widely used as a preservative in various drug products like vaccines, due to the public fears about the vaccine causing autism, even though this theory has been debunked.

2006: US President George W. Bush signs the Combating Autism Act to provide support for autism research and treatment.

2009: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States estimated that 1 in 110 children had autism spectrum disorder. The previous statistics suggested in 2007, this rate was 1 in 150. However, the increase in the prevalence of autism was attributed by the CDC to the advancements in diagnostic and screening techniques.

2010: Andrew Wakefield, a British former physician and academic, who falsely claimed a link between the MMR and autism, lost his medical license and was barred from practicing medicine after his Lancet MMR autism paper was retracted.

2013: The DSM-5 gathered all of the condition subcategories under the umbrella diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and Asperger Syndrome is no longer a separate diagnosis. Autism Spectrum Disorder is now defined by two categories, namely impaired social communication and restricted and repetitive behaviors.

2014: US President Barack Obama signs the Autism Collaboration, Accountability, Research, Education and Support (CARES) Act of 2014, reauthorizing and expanding the Combating Autism Act.

2020: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determines one in 54 children has been identified with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

2022: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determines one in 44 children has been identified with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Compiled and adapted from various articles

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