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History of Autism: The Definitive Guide

history of autism

2 Minute Autism Rundown

Hey there!!!     

Our history of autism gives you the 2-minute autism diagnosis rundown of the boy who was first diagnosed with autism.

Some of you may be parents, other teachers or maybe you are someone with an autism diagnosis.

Today 1 in 59 children will be diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.

The whys for this statistic are hot topics for debate and research and new theories develop all the time. As do many kinds of treatments.

Autism Signs And Symptoms

history of autism

It is 1943, a young boy by the name of Donald Triplett is living in Forest, Mississippi.

Now, this boy is different from the other 3-year-old boys around him in this small town.

Donald is extremely withdrawn and lives inside of his private world. And, he echoes the language and phrases he hears.

He has some impressive abilities though, including rapid mental multiplication and quick memorization skills.

However, his family doctor doesn’t know how to make sense of all the symptoms Donald is presenting.


history of autism

Standard practice at this time is to place children with severe mental deficits in institutions.

Doctors encourage parents to forget about these children. For this reason, at 3 years old, Donald is sent away to an institution.

His parents, though, just can’t forget about him and visit as often as they are allowed.

Doctors begin to notice that Donald’s social skills decline rapidly in this institution.

Finally, after one year, his parents take Donald back to his family home to stay for good.

But Donald’s family still keeps searching for answers. The family takes Donald to Baltimore psychiatrist Dr. Leo Kanner.

Dr. Kanner also doesn’t recognize Donald’s behavior patterns.

He has a series of visits with Donald and eventually eleven other children who display very similar behaviors.

Dr. Kanner uses the phrases, “A powerful desire for aloneness” and “an obsessive insistence on persistent sameness” to describe similarities in each of the children.

From these sessions, Dr. Kanner goes on to publish a paper that outlines a new diagnosis called infantile autism.

Years later the condition is simply known as Autism.

Autism History

history of autism

Donald’s story though is just the beginning of decades of trial and error to define and understand autism as we now know it.


Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler coins the name childhood schizophrenia for the symptoms of autism.

1940’s In the early 1940’s German scientist Han’s Aspberger defines a “milder” form of autism called Aspbergers Syndrome. These children have normal to high and even genius IQ’s. They still struggle to understand the social world around them and have obsessive interests.

Leo Kanner creates the term infantile autism describing kids who are resistant to change.


The first edition of American Psychiatric Association’s Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.   Autism is described as childhood schizophrenia.


1960’s Bruno Bettelheim coins the term “refrigerator mothers.” He believes autism is caused by emotionally cold mothers not loving their children. Consequently, children withdraw into themselves. Nope!

Bernard Rimland Challenges the idea of the refrigerator mother

1960’s Ivar Lovaas begins work on Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

1970’s The first time scientists consider genetics and biology as a cause of autism.

1977 Susan Folstein and Michael Rutter publish a twin study on autism that links genetics to an autism diagnosis

1980’s The movie Rain Man skyrockets awareness of autism. While Dustin Hoffman’s main character is an autistic savant, this is not a defining feature for all children with autism.

1990’s The government adds autism as a special education category. This allows schools to offer services for autism.
Aspberger’s is now a new category in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)

1996 Temple Grandin writes her biography about her life with autism

1998 Andrew Wakefield publishes his study in The Lancet linking autism and childhood vaccinations.

Andrew Wakefield loses his medical license for this fraudulent study.

2000 Autism Spectrum Disorder becomes an umbrella diagnosis for all categories of autism. Aspberger Syndrome is it’s own separate diagnosis.


The DSM-5  childhood disintegrative disorder, Aspbergers and autism into autism spectrum disorder.

Two diagnostic criteria for a diagnosis of autism:

1) Impairment in social communication and/or interaction.
2) Restrictive and repetitive behavior.

Autism Help

history of autism

Families, educators, and healthcare workers struggle for autism resources.

With 1:59 kids being diagnosed with autism, the gap for resources will only widen.

Although many opinions exist on the cause and treatments for autism, we don’t debate those.

Our goal is to close the gap between autism and resources.

So my 2 minutes are up!

I’ll talk to ya soon!

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