23 November 2021

History of Autism

To tie in with the theme of this year’s Disability History Month, Hidden Impairments, Austin looks at the history of autism.

The term autism was first used in 1908 by Dr Eugen Bleuler, a Swiss psychiatrist, who took the Ancient Greek word "aut" for "self" to describe the withdrawn and self-absorbed behaviours associated with schizophrenia in adults.

In 1943, Leo Kanner, a child psychiatrist in the US, wrote a paper about 11 children called “Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact”, in which he described autism as being a distinct syndrome, not connected to or leading to schizophrenia in adults.

One year later, in 1944, Austrian Hans Asperger wrote a paper on autism, but it was not recognised until 50 years later. Both Asperger and Kanner described these conditions with behaviours such as withdrawal, poor social communication and intense interests.

Unfortunately, trends in approaches to emotional, cognitive and mental health at that time led to certain methods of treatment. Family relationships and parenting styles were often seen to be the cause. Approaches such as removing the child from their family and “holding therapy”, where the child was held until the adult could “break through”, and lengthy psychoanalysis of the whole family often occurred.

It was not until the 1960s that an American psychologist and parent of an autistic child, Bernard Rimland, wrote a landmark text suggesting that autism was a neurological disorder – based in biology, not faulty relationships.

Many parents had to battle against the institutionalisation of their autistic children, and fight for mainstream education. Some were placed in the most appalling special needs schools. Adults and children with milder forms were undiagnosed and suffered persecution.

Autistic people are the lowest employed of all disabled people at a rate of 25% so there is clearly a long way to go and many improvements need to be made. More autistic people must be active in trade unions to challenge this iniquity.