Autism, Today and Yesterday: A Disorder of the Mind

Autistic Disorder or autism, as many individuals know it at the present-day, is defined currently as a Pervasive Development Disorder that affects an individual’s ability to communicate and relate to others.   The way autism is defined or described today is very different from how it was once was.  The treatment and the projections of the individuals who have the disorder have changed as well.  What we know today is that autism is a brain disorder where parts of the brain do not work together properly and affect the social and emotional skills of the individual who has the disorder (WebMD, 2011).

Autism is a disorder that was once believed that only affected children, but is now known that is a lifelong disorder, which may or may not get better with time as the individual ages, depending on the severity of it.   The term began being used in 1911s (WebMD, 2011), but has changed in definition as well as how the general public think about it.  Time has a way of changing things and this term, the symptoms that go along with it, and the research about it has not passed time by. 

Over the last one hundred years since the term “autism” began to be used by Eugen Bleuler a lot has taken place in medicine, health, and how the general public view disorders.   Although Bleuler coined the term autism, from the Greek word autos, he referenced it to a group of symptoms of schizophrenia (Rain, E., 2011).  The connection to schizophrenia lasted well into the 1960s; when the disorder began to be studied and understood more.  That is when scientists figured out that autism was a different syndrome than schizophrenia and mental retardation (Wikipedia, 2011).  The term autism as we know it today started to really develop with Leo Kanner in 1943 and Hans Asperger in 1944, who worked independent of each other, in different countries.   Kanner and Asperger both studied children, and used the term to describe the behavior that they saw the children express (Venter, Et all, 1992).  Asperger’s descriptions and research lead to the symptom Asperger’s Syndrome that was separated from autism in the 1980s (Wikipedia, 2011).

Autism is a disorder that is confounding to science, and up until the 1980s and 1990s most individuals believed that it was caused by a lack of love and attention as the child was an infant.   Freudian psychologists started this thinking in the 1940s by emerging with a theory that said that autistic children develop the disorder because they are not given the amount of love and attention as an infant to develop close and personal relationships.   The treatment under this theory was to take the child(ren) out of the house and to put them in foster care (Rain, E., 2011).  The problem with this theory is that it did not take into effect the other children in the household that did not have autism.

In the 1960s and 1970s, individuals still believed that it was a lack of love and attention that caused autism, but started to focus their attention on the mother as the fault.   This is when the Freudian theory waned a little and the Refrigerator Mother theory became popular.   This theory stated that the mother failed in her role, as the child was an infant, and did not properly bond with the child.  Bruno Bettelheim was the one who lead this theory into popularity by comparing a child with this disorder to a prisoner of war in a concentration camp.  He wrote:

The difference between the plight of prisoners in a concentration camp and the conditions which lead to autism and schizophrenia in children is, of course, that the child has never had a previous chance to develop much of a personality (Wikipedia, 2011).

This theory as well did not take into effect the other children in the household who did not have autism.

How autism was viewed in the 1960s and 1970s was unforgiving, but in what manner that the government treated individuals who had the autistic disorder was worse, even as close to saying inhumane.    They still removed the child from his or her home, but they would put them in institutions, instead of foster homes, for treatment.   They had three different types of treatment that they would use on the children and those treatments were: medicines like Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD), shock therapy, and behavior approached that included pain and punishment (Rain, E., 2011).  The harshness and brutality that individuals had to deal with because of autism caused families to try to hide the disorder and not seek treatment, and gave a negative view on the disorder that still is persistent today for some of the general public.

During the 1980s until present-day, things have changed for individuals with autism and their families.   Autism was added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual in the 1980s (Rain, E., 2011), and the most prevalent treatment that is used currently for autism is applied behavioral analysis, and therapy.  Most of the time parents are still blamed for a child having autism, but not in the same manner.   Today most scientists and researchers agree that there is likely a gene that is inherited by the child from their parents (WebMD, 2011).   They have found that five percent of siblings also show symptoms of the disorder (DSM, 2000) and that identical twins are more likely than fraternal twins to both have autism (A.D.A.M, 2010).

Autism today is distinguished by many symptoms and not just one.  Some of the symptoms of autism are; sensitivity in site, hearing, touch, smell or taste, distress when routines are changed, repetition of movements, talk, or subjects, as well as attachment to objects, amongst  others.   The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (2000) states that

The essential features of Autistic Disorder are the presence of markedly abnormal or impaired development in social interaction and communication and a markedly restricted repertoire of activity and interests.

What we know about Autism is that it occurs more in males than in females, up to three to four times more (ADAM, 2010), and that there are more reported cases now than any time in history.  In the United States, approximately one percent of the children ages three to seventeen have an autism spectrum disorder, and that it is estimated that  one in one hundred ten births is eventually diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.  Autism is the fasted growing disability with a 1,148% growth rate (Autism Society, 2006).  Most of the time parents recognize the symptoms of autism in the first three years of life (A.D.A.M, 2010, WebMD, 2011, DSM, 2000, Wikipedia, 2011), and the earlier the diagnosis the superior prognosis the child has for their life (ADAM, 2010, WebMD, 2011). 

There is a great amount of research on the topic of autism that has made our knowledge of the disorder increase, and more and more research is taking place every day.  The topics being investigated the most when it comes to the disorder autism is the cause of the disorder and a cure for it.  Scientists are trying to find out what genes may be responsible for the disorder, while others are looking into what other causes could be the culprit. 

Scientists, researchers, and the medical community know and understand more about autism, but even with this knowledge it is still a mystery to everyone.   The direct cause of autism is unknown, and while most individuals believe that it is genetic, others still have hypothesis that it is caused by environmental problems or caused because of medical problems that arise in the child’s early life (WebMD, 2011).   There are many disorders that are very similar to autistic disorder so another thing that scientists to not know is where one ends and another begins.    In the group of Autism Spectrum Disorders and Persuasive Development Disorders, there are three other disorders, Asperger syndrome, Rett syndrome, Childhood disintegrative disorder,  that are very closely related to Autism (ADAM, 2010).   The numbers of cases of autism has been growing rapidly since the 1980s, and the cause of this is also unknown, with scientists hypothesizing that it could be related to differences in methodology (DSM, 2000). 

Considering the history of where autism originated and where it is today, anyone would have to state that researchers and scientists have made great strides in the development of the term.   With the research and the growing number of cases of autism, you would have to imagine that although the information on the disorder, the treatment, and the thoughts about the disorder has changed, that they still have a long way to go until some answers are established.  In one hundred years the researchers and scientists of the day will look back like we are now, and say that they have come a long way as well.


A.D.A.M.  (2010).  Autism.  Retrieved from

American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.  (4th ed.).  Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing Inc.

Autism Society.  (2006).  Facts and Statistics.  Retrieved from

Rain, E. (2011). Autism. Retrieved from

Venter, A., Lord, C., & Schopler, E. (1992). A follow-up study of high-functioning autistic children. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 33, 489–507. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-7610.1992.tb00887.x

WebMD.  (2011).  History of Autism.  Retrieved from

Wikipedia. (2011).  Autsim. Retrieved from

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