Three generations of hands represent the journey of solving Autism and understanding it.

For decades, Autism has become somewhat of a mystery that researchers and physicians have tried to solve and understand. Puzzled scientists have long searched for the “cause” of Autism; is it genetic? Can it be prevented? Is there a gene that can detect it?

As we have learned more about Autism Spectrum Disorder, scientists still view the neurodevelopmental disorder that affects one in 44 children as a complex mystery whose roots are still not fully understood. Today, we know more than ever about ASD and the different levels and severity that come with the diagnosis, but researchers believe that there is still plenty to learn when it comes to solving Autism.

Here at Simple Spectrum, we strive to learn as much about Autism as we possibly can, which is why it’s essential to share that knowledge with everyone in this community. In today’s article, we will look at a brief timeline of previous research - that has led us to what we know now - and look at new efforts currently underway.

Journey To Solving Autism: A Timeline

Most of us know that the history of Autism and the “first case” isn’t always as straightforward as it is with other conditions and disorders. There are cases of unexplained behavior - which today would be classified as ASD symptoms - from over 100 years ago, and at the time, it was thought to have been a “form of schizophrenia in children.”

Today, there is at least a set of criteria that must be met before an individual can be diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. We know that there have been changes to the diagnosis - classifications and technical terms used to describe levels and Types of Autism - from as recent as 2013 when the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5) released its updated edition. But what about before that? Let’s take a look at significant events that have changed what we know about Autism:

  • 1911- Autism was first coined by a Swiss psychiatrist who used it to describe what he believed was “a form of schizophrenia in children.”
  • 1943- Kanner Syndrome was a term used to describe patterns of “abnormal behavior” or “early infantile Autism” by American Psychologist Dr. Leo Kanner.
  • 1944- Aspergers Syndrome was a condition named after German Scientist Hans Asperger after he worked with a group of children who were very intelligent but had a hard time with social interactions. The term was used to describe what we now refer to as a milder form of Autism.
  • 1967- Austrian Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim first uses and popularizes the term “refrigerator mothers” to propose a now-debunked theory that suggested Autism was the result of inattentive and “cold” mothers.
  • 1977- Research conducted on a set of twins found that Autism may be caused by biological and genetic differences in brain development.
  • 1980- The Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM) officially recognizes “infantile autism” as its own disorder and separates it from the “childhood schizophrenia” diagnosis.
  • 1987- The DSM replaces “infantile autism” with the much more broad term, “autism disorder,” which also included a checklist of diagnostic criteria. One year later, the movie Rain Man was released, raising public awareness of Autism disorder.
  • 1990- The federal government includes Autism to be part of special education as a disability category in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
  • 1994- Asperger’s Syndrome is officially added to the DSM, which expands the spectrum disorder to include milder cases of Autism.
  • 1998- A study suggesting that Autism was caused by the MMR vaccine is published in The Lancet. The article has been debunked and retracted.
  • 2000- Due to misinformed but prevalent public fear regarding the vaccine and autism, vaccine Manufacturers remove the mercury-based preservative, thimerosal, from childhood vaccines.
  • 2009- The U.S. Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 1 in 110 children have Autism - the current statistic in 2021 has changed to 1 in 44 children. The increase is likely due to improved screenings and diagnostics.
  • 2013- An updated version of the DSM is released. In the updated version, all subcategories of the condition are gathered into one umbrella diagnosis of its current name Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and Asperger’s Syndrome is no longer recognized as a separate diagnosis.

When it comes to understanding and solving Autism puzzle pieces, a lot of progress has been made since 1911. Not only has public awareness increased, but everything we know about this neurodevelopmental disorder has changed over the years. It’s kind of wild to think that only 50 years ago, people thought Autism was due to “bad parenting.” And only 30 years ago, people blamed Autism on a vaccine.

We have come a long way in the last 100 years, and we still don’t fully understand the complexities, causes, and origins associated with Autism. So, for now, let’s keep on educating ourselves and those around us...we still have a long journey ahead!