History of Autism

The history of autism wouldn’t be complete without discussing the origins of the word “autism”. According to the American Psychological Association the term was first coined by Swiss psychiatrist Paul Eugen Bleuler in 1912, who also coined the term schizophrenia. It’s interesting to know that Bleuler had a neurological condition himself, called Synesthesia. This disorder is characterized by sensory information crossing over as the individual senses one sensation as another like tasting colours or seeing music.

The root of the word autism is from the Greek “autos” which means “self”. Combine that with the Greek suffix “ismos” which means action or state of being and you get an original root meaning that roughly translates to a state of being absorbed by one’s self. This makes sense today because people with autism often seem to be lost in themselves. They are certainly removed from social interaction and isolated in that way. But there’s more to the history of autism than just the word itself.

Like many other words, use of the term autism has changed over the years. In 1938 Hans Asperger of the Vienna University Hospital adopted the term “autistic psychopaths” as he discussed child psychology. Today a high-functioning form of autism is often diagnosed as Asperger’s Syndrome. In 1943 Leo Kanner of Johns Hopkins Hospital began using the term autism as we know it today. With the changing of its use over the decades Leo Kanner is generally the one credited for using the term autism as the disorder is known in moden day, though it wasn’t until the 60s when autism was established as a separate disorder distinguished from others such as schizophrenia and retardation. Up to then autism was treated very similarly to those disorders.


Here’s an interesting tidbit in the history of autism; Beginning around the 1940s parents of autistic children began receiving blame for their child’s autism, particularly the mothers. Dr. Kanner did nothing to dispell that notion. In fact, in a 1949 paper he went so far as to write that autistic children “were left neatly in refrigerators which did not defrost. Their withdrawal seems to be an act of turning away from such a situation to seek comfort in solitude.” His paper spawned the term “Regfrigerator Mothers”. And in 1960 he was quoted as saying that parents of autistic kids “just happening to defrost enough to produce a child.”

The whole idea behind Refrigerator Mothers was that their children had autism because of the mothers frigidity. They were supposedly “cold” to their child and didn’t interact or play with them and didn’t cuddle them. Of course we now know that this is a ridiculous theory and the product of doctors being too quick to jump to a conclusion.

The history of autism is still being written today. And the parents of children with ASD are playing a big part in what the history books will say going into the future.

American Psychological Association (APA): autism. (n.d.). Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved December 08, 2008, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/autism

Kanner L (1949). “Problems of nosology and psychodynamics in early childhood autism”. Am J Orthopsychiatry 19 (3): 416–26.

“The child is father”, TIME (1960-07-25).