The History of Autism

Autism, while it was a diagnosis, is now referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). This is because there are five different disorders that are all under the blanket of ASD, which all have different symptoms and severities, but are obviously related enough to be categorized together. To keep out timeline straight, these five disorders were all brought under ASD in 2013.

A quick overview of Autism before we jump into its history is that it is a brain disorder that begins very early in a babies life, but typically starts to show major symptoms around the ages of 2 to 3 years old. With new screenings, however, we are beginning to be able to detect Autism as early as one year old. This is great news because the earlier a child gets treatment, the better their outcome.

Autism, while it begins early in life, there is not a cure for it. There are certain individuals who do improve their symptoms enough to test off of the spectrum. You can get more of an idea of what sorts of things can improve symptoms in our guide on improving Autistic Symptoms here.


The term of Autism has been used for a little over 100 years now. It was first used by Eugene Bleuler, who was a Swiss psychiatrist. He used it to describe schizophrenia, which is not associated with Autism today.

Autism, or autismus as it was in the original Latin that Bleuler used, comes from the Greek word “autos”, which means “self.” It was meant to describe the “isolated self” that he saw in those with schizophrenia.

However, the first documented cases of Autism, as we would diagnose it today, go back farther than Bleuler.

The Timeline of Autism

The earliest, well-documented account of autism goes back to a 1747 court case where Hugh Blair of Borgue’s brother petitioned to annul Blair’s marrying to his wife to get to Blair’s inheritance.

The court documents describing Blair show very strongly that he had Autistic symptoms.

Then next case is that of The Wild Boy of Aveyron, who was a feral child who lived in the wild for seven years and was brought back into society in 1798. Very good notes were taking about this boy and people’s attempts to teach him language and social skills.

Reviewing the notes has led modern-day researchers to believe that the boy had Autism based on his ability to learn to communicate and some of his behaviors.

There is not a lot of history between those first two cases and when Bleuler coined the term Autism in the early 1900s.

It wasn’t until 1938 that Autism started to take on a more modern meaning and separation from schizophrenia. This came because of Hans Asperger of the Vienna University Hospitals research in investigating what came to be known as Asperger syndrome.

In 1943, Autism became even more defined when Leo Kanner came up with early infantile autism to describe the behavioral similarities in 11 children he was working with. Some of the behaviors these children shared were “autistic aloneness” and “insistence on sameness.”

Between Kanner’s diagnosis in 1943 and the late 1960's, there was a lot of confusion around the term Autism, with it getting mixed up with terminology like infantile schizophrenia.

However, in the late 60’s to mid 70’s, autism started to get more attention, research, and definition. However, some of this research was very off the mark.

An example of this inaccurate research was done by Bruno Bettelheim, who believed that autism was caused by unloving, cold mothers. He coined the term “refrigerator mothers,” to describe these mothers.

This was countered by Bernard Rimland, who was a psychologist with an autistic child. In 1964, he published “Infantile Autism: The Syndrome and it’s Implication for Neural Theory of Behavior” that helped define and direct research at that time.

Treatments used in the 60’s and 70’s consisted of LSD, electric shock, and behavior change that focused on pain and punishment.

It wasn’t until the 1980’s and 90’s that we start to see more modern therapies for children with autism, such as behavioral therapy focusing on positive rewards and controlled learning environments.

In 1987, “infantile autism” was expanded into “autism disorder” and finally had a set list of diagnostic criteria to help standardize the diagnosing. In this same year, Ivar Lovaas published the first study showing that intensive behavior therapy can help children improve their autistic symptoms.

In 1991, the U.S. Government made autism a special education category, which helped public schools to offer special services to children on the spectrum.

However, the 1980’s and 1990’s weren’t all positive movements. In 1998, a study was published that the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine causes autism. The study was later debunked but got enough attention to still cause confusion to this day.

This brings us to modern day, including the merging of the five different disorders all under the Autism Spectrum Disorder title.

Present Day Situation

With this long history of Autism, it is interesting to learn that Autism now is one of the fastest growing development disorders in the U.S., with 1 in 68 children being born now getting diagnosed with Autism. This is partially attributed to better diagnosis, but not fully. In the last 40 years, we have seen a 1,000% increase in Autism.

Research is starting to uncover a lot more about autism and what causes it. As of now, there are about 100 genes that increase the risk factor for autism, with a handful of them being able to cause autism on their own. While the vaccines and “refrigerator mothers” theories have been debunked, there are still environmental factors, which when combined with the right genes, can cause autism.

If you’d like to learn more about Autism, check out our article, “What is Autism?