What is Autism?

Most reputable scientists now believe that autism has existed throughout the history of humankind. Some have speculated that ancient legends about “changelings” are actually stories of children with autism. Celtic mythology is redolent with stories of elves and visitors from “the other side” who steal a human child and leave their own damaged child in its place. The child left behind is usually mute, remote and distant, staring into space and unresponsive to its adult caretakers. We must bear in mind that in times gone by, and in some cultures today, children who are unlike the average expected child are seen to be victims of evil or some sort.

In 1801 the French physician Itard took into his care a boy who had been found wandering naked in the forest. It was believed at the time that the boy had lived alone in the forest since early childhood. The boy could not speak and was unresponsive to human contact. He has come to be known as “sauvage de l’Aveyron,” or “wild boy of Aveyron”. Itard’s tireless efforts to help this boy mark the beginning of special educaiton. Although autism was not a term used at the time there are those who speculate that the wild boy of Aveyron was a child with autism.

The real history of autism dates back only one hundred years to the time of the Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler. In 1911 Bleuler was writing about a group of people then identified as autism having schizophrenia. In his writing he coined the term “autism” to describe their seeming near total absorption with themselves and distance from others.

Writing in the early 1920’s, Carl Gustav Jung introduced the terminology of extrovert and introvert. Jung viewed these personality types as being present in all people to one degree or another. However he noted that in extreme cases, cases that in the language of his day were called “neurotic”, a person could become totally absorbed into himself or herself.

It was not until the late 1930’s and early 1940’s in America that the term “autism” joined the official psychiatric nomenclature. Psychiatrists Leo Kanner, who started working with a particular group of children in 1938, and Hans Asperger, both publishing findings and writing in 1943 and 1944, wrote about groups of children they had studied and called either “autistic” or children with “autistic psychopathy”. Both authors believe these children displayed a constellation of symptoms that were unique and represented a syndrome not previously identified. As the children they studied seemed unable to engage in normal human relationships they borrowed Bleuler’s term “autism” to identify the syndrome. The defining difference between the work of Kanner and Asperger and that of Bleuler is that for the former two the condition they describe is present at birth while for Bleuler the condition appears much later in life.

Another important difference in these early pioneers of autism is that Kanner group is quite self-contained and comprised of individual all sharing the same “core” symptoms. Asperger’s group is quite wide, ranging from the children like Kanner’s to children with near normal characteristics. The vestiges of these two differing descriptions, now bearing the names of their illustrious “discoverers” remains to this day. In the literature and in lay terminology we still hear people described as having “Kanner’s autism” or “Asperger’s syndrome.

Around the time of Kanner and Asperger another famous, indeed in autism circles infamous, name appears. This is Bruno Bettelheim. In 1944 Bettelheim directed the Orthogenic School for Children in Chicago, Illinois. There he worked out his own theory of the cause of autism and started intervention programmes. Bettelheim believed that autism was a result of children being raised in severely unstimulating environments during their early years. He believed it was parents, particularly mothers, who were unresponsive to their children that caused autism. The unfortunate term “refrigerator mother” arose during this time.

Although Bettelheim’s psychological theories were eventually discredited it was not for many years that science advanced to the point that mother’s were not blamed for autism. Indeed, the author’s own post-graduate training in the mid to late 70’s was characterised by lectures about “refrigerator mothers” having caused autism. The legacy of Bettelheim’s theory is undoubtedly one of terrible harm inflicted on so many mothers for so many years. [I cannot help but wonder if we really have progressed since I have so often heard mothers of children with autism being described as “over-anxious”, “clinging”, “over-involved” and “pushy or aggressive” by some educators, psychologists and physicians]

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