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History of autism

Autism and Asperger syndrome are part of a range of developmental disorders called autistic spectrum disorders or ASD. These lifelong conditions begin in childhood.

Learn more about the history and current understanding of autism.

Where did the term 'autism' come from?

The word autism, which has been in use for more than 100 years, comes from the Greek word autos, meaning self. The term describes conditions in which a person is removed from social interaction -- hence, an isolated self.

Eugen Bleuler, a Swiss psychiatrist, was the first person to use the term. He started using it around 1911 to refer to one group of symptoms of schizophrenia.

In the 1940s, researchers in the United States began to use the term autism to describe children with emotional or social problems. Leo Kanner, a doctor from Johns Hopkins University, used it to describe the withdrawn behaviour of several children he studied. At about the same time, Hans Asperger, a scientist in Germany, identified a similar condition that's now called Asperger syndrome.

Autism and schizophrenia remained linked in many researchers' minds until the 1960s. It was only then that medical professionals began to have a separate understanding of autism in children.

From the 1960s through the 1970s, research into treatments for autism focused on medications such as LSD, electric shock, and behaviour change techniques. The latter relied on pain and punishment.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the role of behaviour therapy and the use of highly controlled learning environments emerged as the primary treatments for many forms of autism and related conditions. Currently, the cornerstone of autism therapy is behaviour therapy. Other treatments are added as needed.

What are the symptoms of autistic spectrum disorder?

One symptom common to all types of autistic spectrum disorders is an inability to easily communicate and interact with others. In fact, some people with autistic spectrum disorder may be unable to communicate at all. Others may have difficulty interpreting body language or holding a conversation.

Other symptoms linked to autistic spectrum disorder may include unusual behaviours in any of these areas:

  • Interest in objects or specialised information
  • Reactions to sensations
  • Ways of learning

These symptoms are usually seen early in development. Most children with severe autistic spectrum disorder are diagnosed by age three. Some children with milder forms of autistic spectrum disorder, such as Asperger syndrome, may not be diagnosed until later when their problems with social interaction cause difficulties at school.

What are the types of autism?

Experts now refer to autism and related conditions as being part of the autism spectrum disorder (ASD) that includes the following:

  • Autistic disorder: Children with autistic disorder cannot use verbal or nonverbal communication to interact effectively with others. Usually, children with autistic disorder have severe delays in learning language. They may have obsessive interest in certain objects or information. They may perform certain behaviours repeatedly.
  • Pervasive development disorder--not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS): Children diagnosed with atypical autism are included in this group. Children with PDD-NOS have symptoms that do not exactly fit those of autistic disorder or any other ASD. For example, the symptoms may have developed after age three. Or the symptoms may not be severe enough to be considered autistic disorder.
  • Asperger syndrome: Children with Asperger syndrome may display many of the same symptoms as children with autistic disorder. However, they usually have average or above average intelligence. They often want to be social with others but don’t know how to go about it. They may not be able to understand others’ emotions. They may not read facial expressions or body language well. Their symptoms may not become apparent until school. Then they're noticed when behaviour and communication with peers become more important.

Other conditions share symptoms with ASDs. These conditions include the following:

  • Rett syndrome: Children with this severe, rare condition begin with normal development from birth through about five months of age. However, from about five months to four years of age, head circumference development slows. Children lose motor skills and social interaction and language development become impaired.
  • Childhood disintegrative disorder: Like Rett syndrome, children begin developing normally. However, from about age two to 10, children are increasingly less able to interact and communicate with others. At the same time, they develop repetitive movements and obsessive behaviours and interests. They lose motor skills, too. This usually leads to them become disabled. This autism-like condition is the rarest and most severe autism spectrum disorder.
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