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CASD 7317X/CBSE 7685T Introduction to Autism Spectrum Disorders: Historical Perspectives

Introduction to Autism Spectrum Disorders, Professor Susan Longtin

Historical Perspectives on Autism

This unit addresses the origin of the construct of autism in the 1940s through changes in the views of autism over the past seven decades. Contemporary views of the autism spectrum will be addressed and current issues will be explored in a historical perspective.

Link to selected pages of  An Historical Account of the Discovery and Education of a Savage ManIt has been presumed that before the discovery of the pattern of symptoms now known as autism, that people did exist with the syndrome, and were lumped together either with the mentally retarded or the insane. We might expect to have inherited sufficiently-detailed descriptions of such people that we would be able to see a pattern suggesting autism among them, but there have not been many descriptions that suggest autism. One such description is of a boy found in the 19th century and named Victor. At the time, some assumed he had grown up without human contact in the forest. The story was recorded in the book The Wild Boy of Aveyron.


Link to New York Times article  DR. LEO KANNER, 86, CHILD PSYCHOLOGIST1943    Leo Kanner publishes “Autistic Disturbance of Affective Contact” describing 11 socially isolated children who share an obsessive desire for sameness.

1944    Hans Asperger publishes a definition of autistic psychopathy. The relation of Aspergers and ASD is still not clearly defined.Photograph of Hans Asperger



1950s-1960s   Autism widely regarded as a form of “childhood schizophrenia.” Psychoanalysts blame emotionally cold mothering.

Link to Autism in 1959: Joey the Mechanical Boy This image of Bruno Bettelhein links to an article discussing his work on "Joey the Mechanical Boy" and "refrigerator mothers." (PediatricsJune 2010, VOLUME 125 / ISSUE 6​ Autism in 1959: Joey the Mechanical Boy by Jeffrey P. Baker)

1960s   Autism still widely regarded as a form of “childhood schizophrenia.” Some experimental therapies that would not be approved today we employed, for instance, the use of LSD on autistic children.

Bender (1969) viewed autism as an early manifestation of schizophrenia. The Lauretta Bender papers are held in the special collections of Brooklyn College Library.

1970s  Autism understood as a biological disorder of brain development.

Ritvo & Freeman (1977) publish the National Society of Autistic Children’s definition of autism.
Holstein & Cutter’s (1977) early twin studies suggest a genetic basis for ASD.

1980    DSM-III distinguishes autism from childhood schizophrenia.

1987    DSM-IIIR lays out a checklist of criteria for diagnosing autism.

1994-2000       DSM-IV and DSM-IV-TR expand definition of autism and include Asperger syndrome.

2013    DSM-5 folds all subcategories into one umbrella diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It is defined by two categories:
impaired social communication and/or interaction and restricted and/or repetitive behaviors.

Unit I Reading: Historical Perspectives

autism handbook volkmarVolkmar, F.R., Reichow, B., Westphal, A. & Mandell, D.S. (2014). Autism and the autism spectrum: diagnostic concepts. In Volkmar, F.R., Rogers, S.J., Paul, R., & Pelfrey, K.A. (Eds.)  Handbook on autism and pervasive developmental disorders, fourth edition, vol.1: Diagnosis, development, and brain mechanisms (pp.3-27). NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

This reading (chapter 1) provides information on changes in how the conceptualization of autism has changed since it was first described by Leo Kanner in 1943.   The chapter also includes issues in the diagnosis and classification of autism and concludes with current conceptualizations.

Loving Lamposts

 “Loving Lamposts” is an 83-minute film that features a Brooklyn family with toddler son with ASD.  The child has a special interest, the lampposts in nearby Prospect Park.  After his son's diagnosis, filmmaker Todd Drezner explores the "recovery movement," which views autism as a tragic epidemic brought on by environmental toxins. Operating outside the boundaries of mainstream medicine, these parents, doctors, and therapists search for unconventional treatments that can "reverse" autism and restore their children to normal lives. 
The film also addresses the 'neurodiversity' movement, which argues that autism should be accepted and autistic people supported. This group argues that the focus on treatments and cures causes the wider society to view autistic people as damaged and sick. The film also features autistic adults who show just how difficult it can be to judge an autistic person's life

Carley Lecture

Michael John Carley, an adult with Asperger Syndrome who is the founding director of the Global Regional Asperger Syndrome Partnership (GRASP), provides a 1:15 hour lecture on the history of autism and how views about ASD have changed over time.

Autism at 70

Autism Speaks: Review of Autism at 70 – from Kanner to DSM-5

Autism Speaks outlines the New England Journal of Medicine article on outlines how views of autism have changed since it was first identified in 1943 through the present time.

Autism Speaks Logo

Marguerite Elisofson