A Unique History of Autism Awareness

What is Autism and how did Autism Spectrum Disorder develop throughout time?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is classified as a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects a person’s development of language, social, and behavioral understanding and skills. There are autistic spectrum characteristics commonly associated with the disorder, such as detachment, delayed speech development, and sometimes unique intellectual abilities. These characteristics can manifest extensively, minorly, or not at all from person to person, as in, no two autistic people experience the disorder the same. Those that are diagnosed with ASD are eligible for special education services if they experience negative educational performances as identified by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA). (Krezmien & Travers, 2018). Establishing the criteria for diagnosis, the origins of the disorder, and providing positive educational and supportive services to those with autism has taken over a few hundred years to develop, although we know today that it has always existed in the human mind.

The first documentations of those with autism were in fact the misfits of society, feeble minded, town’s idiot, retarded, criminal, or labeled a lost cause. Before the turn of the 19th century, there was no diagnosis for those that seemed cognitively aware but socially inept. Even so, some of these withdrawn or wild individuals were known to be musically or artistically inclined. Although most accepted the disregard for those labeled idiots, gifted or not, a few outcries would be heard throughout the 18th century that would evoke need for change. One such voice was that of Samuel Gridley Howe, a doctor, radicalist, and special education pioneer. (Donovan & Zucker, 2016).

Howe had studied and graduated from Brown University, and then got his medical degree from Harvard in 1824. He had traveled to Greece, rallying with the revolutionists and serving as a battlefield doctor. Having studied special education in Prussia, France, and Belgium, he became the first director for the New England Asylum for the Blind. Howe would take what he learned from Europe and in 1832 establish the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts. It was his belief that the blind could and should be educated, he was an advocate for teaching children with disabilities. Against much opposition, Howe lead a survey that gained legislative support to provide intellectually impaired citizens the services they need to function within their society in 1846. (Donovan & Zucker, 2016).

The Perkins School for the Blind produced many successful students, such as Laura Bridgman, described as warm hearted by Charles Darwin, and famed author Helen Keller. Howe was particularly notable in his contribution to the beginning stages of autism awareness because of his immense system of data on possible autistic people in the United States. He and his colleagues had studied over 570 people from over 60 towns, noting essential aspects of personality within those deemed as idiots or socially inept, such as possessing unique abilities in music and math. By the 1870’s, he provided the outliner for autism spectrum disorder diagnosis. (Donovan & Zucker, 2016).

Howe would go on to establish the School for Feeble Minded in 1888, later on named Fernald State School. It was his desire that his research be used for future scientific and supportive study, and he warned against the segregation of those with ASD. (Donovan & Zucker, 2016). Unfortunately, even the early researchers of autism wouldn’t be the most positive proponents.

A misunderstanding in autism behavior and its origins has always existed.

A hot debate exists today stemming from two other pioneers of autism research. At around the turn of the 19th century, Leo Kranner and Hans Asperger were born. Both are considered to be pioneers of autism research and literature, but who necessarily came first is the heat of the discussion. It is widely argued that Kranner had plagiarized Asperger’s 1938 published paper, Psychically Abnormal Child, which was not translated until 1981. The story goes that Kranner’s assistant, Georg Frankl, worked at the Vienna Lazar Clinic with Hans Asperger for over a decade. The argument claims if it weren’t for this, Kranner wouldn’t have had the knowledge bank, and the forty year head start, that he never attributed Asperger for. (Chown & Hughes, 2016).

The differences between Kranner and Asperger’s work and beliefs are substantial. Kranner’s view and approach is now considered in part as a disservice to the research and awareness of autism. To note, Kranner’s infantile autism theory implied the characteristics and behavior were relevant only to children, denying recognition to adults and their right to access support services. His view was narrow and restrictive in definition and application. He would attribute autistic characteristics to cold or uncaring mothers, stating they were responsible for their child’s withdrawn behavior or inattentiveness to low or no emotional contact. By the 1950’s, the “refrigerator mom” theory would emerge based around this proposal, negatively impacting the advancement of Asperger’s studies. (Chown & Hughes, 2016).

Asperger in great contrast acknowledged family patterns and considered some as positive. He regarded a range of manifestations, and saw threads of intelligence and certain disabilities as intertwined. Some state that Kranner had plagiarized Asperger’s ideas, not his paper, but nonetheless, his views and notoriety halted the recognition of autism as being a lifelong syndrome, thus hindering adult access to support services and education. However, this wouldn’t last forever after the translation and advancements of Asperger’s work. By the late 1980’s, his work of qualitative impairment in reciprocal social interaction replaced Kranner’s pervasive lack of response to other people model. (Chown & Hughes, 2016). History would find more pioneers of autism awareness throughout the decades of misconceptions.

A psychologist named Bernard Rimland rejected the psychoanalytic model approach to autism diagnosis. In the 1960’s, Rimland proposed that the root of autism was biological in origin. His proposals found support and eventually lead to the psychoanalytic approach in diagnosis to a collapse. In 1967, Rimland founded the Autism Research Institute in San Diego. His works would branch the autism spectrum disorder into two new frameworks of understanding and approach: neurodevelopment and biological. (Baker, 2008).

By the 1970’s, a new mainline approach was provided and involved four approaches to treatment: the cause is fundamentally biological and therefore is not attributable to parent behavior; it is conceptualized on a spectrum of disorders; treatment should be rehabilitative than curative since it is biological; and early referral and intervention offers the greatest hope for positive developmental and social integration outcomes. It would seem Kranner’s original narrow definitions would be appropriately modified to capture children with greater intellectual and language impairment, and then modified again to encompass higher functioning children. (Baker, 2008). Like anything subject to history’s whims, the field and study of autism would take another negative turn by the 1990’s.

The rise of interest and diagnosis in autism is no surprise to most ASD researchers. With the advances of science, medicine, and globalization, awareness of autism behaviors and its diagnosis is bound to increase. Along with the increased awareness will come the increased room for misunderstandings. One misconception that gained significant popularity was that disease preventing vaccines were the cause of autism. Such claims lay loosely based on the medicinal use of mercury in vaccines. Pseudoscience would take hold of these views, and a movement against vaccinations would establish itself. Investigations were implemented, and although the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a statement that no evidence of vaccine preservatives causes harm, they should still be removed. The controversy erupted and was lead mostly by parents. Their non-scientific research, ie. the internet, is largely responsible for reporting autism diagnosis during this time as an epidemic. (Baker, 2008).

In truth, the definition of autism is constantly being revisited and has always been a part of history.

The rise of awareness in the 1990’s makes sense due to the psychological and scientific interest as well as ongoing efforts for recognition. Even Asperger and Kranner, two men seen as the discoverers of autism, doubted the title of such recognition and professed that ASD has, “always been there.” Today, revisiting the operative definition of autism has been more prevalent, thus making it easier to qualify or be diagnosed as on the spectrum. (Donovan & Zucker, 2016).

Well before the 18th century there have been reports of unique, misunderstood, or wild children. Legends like Viktor the Wild Boy of Aveyron, a feral boy who wandered from the forests into French society in 1799, are now thought to be documented cases of autism spectrum disorder. There are cases like the “blessed fools of Russia,” or the stories of Brother Juniper which are now considered 12th century autism disorder documentation. We can accredit the development of science and technology with the advancements of neurology, which has inspired a neurodiversity movement that declares autism is not a disability but a way of brain wiring that should be recognized and even celebrated for history’s autistic identities such as Isaac Newton, Leonardo da Vinci, and Thomas Jefferson. (Donovan & Zucker, 2016).

As education and awareness increases and sorts itself out through time, newer shifts in focus affect the direction of autism support services. For example, in 1997, changes in racial reporting in the United States announced a shift of reporting data from five racial categories to seven when diagnosing autism in children. This was mandated by the Federal Office of Management and Budget, not an psychological or educational institution such as the Treatment and Education of Autistic and Related Communication Handicapped Children (TEACCH). Such rushed measurements caused adverse affects such as inconsistencies in data collecting and reporting, underdiagnosing children of cultural or racial backgrounds, and hindering the advancement of support services made available to adults. In fact, in studying racial disparities in autism identification in the United States, it was found that caucasian children are much more likely to be diagnosed with autism then children from Latino, African American, and Asian American backgrounds, who were found to be disproportionately represented. Much of this lies in autistic behaviors or characteristics being attributed to cultural factors over biological or neurological for children of ethnic minorities. This means that those who do not receive early referral or intervention not only aren’t accounted for in data reporting, but also don’t meet the IDEA eligibility criteria for academic, health, social, or mental services. (Krezmien & Travers, 2014).

What we can learn from the development of autism research over the past few centuries?

The human brain is sensitive and ever surprising, and thus the characteristics of autism are no exception. The factors that can create an autistic child are largely biological, and some experts give notion to environmental factors. Although parental behavior is not linked to the neurology of autistic minds, the positive support can lead a child to successfully adapt to his social surroundings. We are fortunate to live in a time of global information sharing, where higher learning and adult access to it is more commonly accepted and sought after.

The history of autism awareness has experienced waves of positive research, publication, and promotion, as well as detrimental impacts. From one researcher’s studies and analysis to the next, what is known is that no better collection of information is found than that of the perspective of those diagnosed with autism. Many studies have shown that appropriate programs and transitional support systems, as well as specialized education, can lead those with autism to overcome the obstacles they experience socially and sometimes cognitively.

Even this author’s experiences with living with autism has been almost typical of one who has received educational and health related support throughout her academic and social endeavors. My academic and personal goals throughout my elementary, secondary, and more recent pursuit of higher education were achieved if only for the help of compassionate teachers, trained and licensed educators, and school administrators who work tirelessly to provide the advising tools necessary to become functional and happy citizens. The ability of personal insight is nothing short of an autistic characteristic, but the ability to effectively communicate verbally and writtenly came through adult education.

The differences among the spectrum disorder have been viewed time and time again through many different lenses. From scientists, doctors, psychologists, teachers, to policy makers, there are many factions that all have a hand in the sway of autism diagnosis and support. It’s confirmed that those who acknowledge the biological origins and accept the characteristic behavior are found to be positive proponents to effective autism research and education. With this we can look forward to another few hundred years of understanding and storytelling of this childlike and varied neurological disorder. As time moves on, it becomes more apparent that autistic people are not inept at socialization or intellectual tasks, but rather simply need the extra guidance to help them adjust to the ever changing and evolving world around them. Being positive and promoting truthful information will be effective in helping those understand that autism has always been with us and will continue to develop human history into a diverse and unique one.

Important Info

This is an approved research paper penned and submitted by Sabra Anne Snyder for PSY-3025 History of Modern Psychology to Professor L. Werdenschlag at NVU-Lyndon. Any references, quotes, or any other extrapolation from the text above should be credited accordingly, as well as the original sources themselves which are found below.


Baker, Jeffrey. (2008). Mercury, Vaccines, and Autism One Controversy, Three Histories. American Journal of Public Health. Vol 98 Issue 2. Retrieved from ISSN: 0090-0036

Chown, Nick & Hughes, Liz. (2016). History and First Descriptions of Autism: Asperger Versus Kranner Revisited. J Autism Dev Discord. DOI: 10.1007/s10803-016-2746-0

Donovan, John & Zucker, Caren. (2016). Autism in Early America. Smithsonian. Vol 46 Issue 9. Retrieved from: ISSN: 0037333.

Krezmien, Michael & Travers, Jason. (2018). Racial Disparities in Autism Identification in the United States During 2014. Exceptional Children. Vol 84 Issue 4. DOI: 10.1177/0014402918771337

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