Monday, April 16, 2007

A History of Autism: A Summary of Some of the Best Known Research

It is well known that October is breast cancer awareness month and February is black history month. Lesser known is Autism awareness month, which occurs in April. It is important that people become aware of the disorder because more and more children are being diagnosed with the disorder everyday. The Center of Disease control recently reported that 1 out 150 birth are affected by autism. Autism is a complex neurological disorder that affects speech, motor skills, and social interactions and is often accompanied by sensory problems. There is no known cause but there has been plenty of research.

Although, it is believed that autism has always existed in our society, autism as a disorder did not get recognition until the twentieth century. Autism, as a word, was first used by a Swiss Psychiatrist named Eugene Bleuler in an article appearing in a 1912 issue of the American Journal of Insanity. At the time autism, was confused with schizophrenia. Autism comes from “autos,” a Greek word for self. Bleuler at the time had studied a group of “Schizophrenics” who had difficulty making social connections.

Autism became officially recognized as a disorder in 1943 when Dr. Leo Kanner, a psychiatrist at John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, discussed observations he made of eleven children that “seemed to lack interest in other people.” His article “Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact," appeared in The Nervous Child, a now defunct journal.

A year later, a scientist unaware of Kanner’s work, also used the word autism to describe a group of children he had observed. Hans Asperger, an Austrian, published a paper titled “Autistic Psychopathy in Childhood.” The paper was nearly lost during World War II. However, in 1981, English Psychiatrist, Lorna Wing, wrote a paper titled Asperger's Syndrome: a Clinical Account which popularized Asperger’s work and gave a name to a syndrome that set a group of people apart from the group studied by Kanner.

Asperger’s Syndrome is associated with high functioning people with average to above average intelligence who tend to have some difficulty with social and motor skills along with sensory problems. Most people known to have Asperger’s Syndrome grow up to be self sufficient adults who may be seen by other people as odd. Asperger’s Syndrome, along with autism, now is classified in the DSM-IV-TR as two of five pervasive developmental disorders. Kanner’s autism includes people who have speech difficulties and who may or may not have mental retardation. The range of severity autism varies amongst individuals from severe to mild.

Research into autism faced a setback as the result of the work of American Bruno Bettleheim who also worked with children in the 1940s. Bettleheim, who spent some time in a Nazi concentration camp, believed that he saw parallels between autistic children and some of the prisoners he observed. As a result, he mistakenly believed a child’s environment was to blame. He removed the child from the mother as part of the therapy he administered. His work, which has since been discredited by various studies, was embraced by the medical community in the 1950s and 60s and led to the infamous phrase “refrigerator mothers,” which alluded to a mother’s failure to bond with her child. A film titled “Refrigerator Mothers” first aired on PBS in July 2002. It tells the stories of mothers (some of whom successfully raised other children) who faced that term with guilt and despair in the 1950s and 60s.

An improvement in the approach to autism occurred when the Autism Society of America was founded in 1965 by Bernard Rimland. His book, Infantile Autism: The Syndrome and Its Implications for a Neural Theory of Behavior, was one of the first of its kind. According to the organization’s website, “during the last 40 years, the Society has grown from a handful of parents, into the leading source of information, research, and reference on autism.” Today the organization boasts thousands of members and publishes a magazine titled Autism Advocate.

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