History of Autism

The word “autism,” which has been in use for about 100 years, comes from the Greek word “autos,” meaning “self.”

The term describes conditions in which a person is removed from social interaction — hence, an isolated self.

The first person to use the term, circa 1911, was Eugen Bleuler, a Swiss psychiatrist, referring to a sub-group of symptoms of schizophrenia.

Nervous child. Leo Kanner, 1943:2:217-250

In the 1940s, researchers in the United States began to use the term “autism” to describe children with emotional or social problems. Leo Kanner, a Psychiatrist and physician from Johns Hopkins University, used it to describe the withdrawn behavior of several children he studied. In his paper “Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact”, published in 1943.  Dr. Kanner studied 11 children with Autism where onset was at birth or shortly thereafter. He noted social isolation, inability to relate, happiest when left alone, stereotypic behaviors, echolalia, personal pronouns repeated as heard, anxious obsessive desire for maintenance of sameness, reacting to sounds in “horror”, severe feeding difficulties, literal and inflexible use of words, excellent rote memory e.g. naming objects, limitation in the variety of spontaneous activity, good relation to objects and can play with them for hours, better relationship with pictures of people than people themselves, good cognitive potentialities and notably all came from highly intelligent families.


Noted in his paper:  “Since 1938, there have come to our attention a number of children whose condition differs so markedly and uniquely from anything reported so far that each case merits—and, I hope will eventually receive—a detailed consideration of its fascinating peculiarities”….

“These characteristics form a unique “syndrome”,not heretofore reported, which seems to be rare enough, yet is probably more frequent than is indicated by the paucity of observed cases.”


The following are a series of descriptive quotes of the cases described by Dr. Kanner in his paper.


In his second year, he “developed a mania for spinning blocks and pans and other round objects.” At the same time, he had…


An abstration of mind which made him perfectily oblivious to everythign about him. He appears to be always thinking and thinking, and to get his attention almost requires one to break down a mental barrier between his inner consciousness and the outside world.


There was a marked limitation of spontaneous activity. He wandered about smiling, making stereotyped movements with his fingers, crossing them about in the air. He shook his head from side to side, whispering or humming the same three-note tune. He spun about with great pleasure anything he could seize upon to spin. He kept throwing things on the floor, seeming t delight in the sounds they made. He arranged beads, sticks, or blocks in groups of different series of colors. Whenever he finished one of these performances, he squealed and jumped up and down. Beyond this he showed no initiative, requiring constant instruction (from his mother) in any form of activity other than the limited ones in which he was absorbed.


Words to him had a specifically literal, inflexible meaning. He seemed unable to generalize, to transfer an expression to another similar object or situation.


Don expressed his agreement by repeating the question literally, echolalia-like.


At the end of the paper Dr. Kanner raises the question of the potential contribution of emotional disconnectedness of parents and their poor marital relationships.  It then appears that Dr. Kanner is  the originator of the “Refrigerator Mom” Theory.  He writes:


One other fact stands out prominently. In the whole group, there are very few really warmhearted fathers and mothers. For the most part, the parents, grandparents, and collaterals are persons strongly preoccupied with abstractions of a scientific, literary, or artistic nature, and limited in genuine interest in people. Even some of the happiest marriages are rather cold and formal affairs. Three of the marriages were dismal failures. The question arises whether or to what extent this fact has contributed to the condition of the children. The children’s aloneness from the beginning of life makes it difficult to attribute the whole picture exclusively to the time of the early parental relations with our patients.

We must, then, assume that these children have come into the world with innate inability to form the usual, biologically provided affective contact with people, just as other children come into the world with innate physical or intellectual handicaps. If this assumption is correct, a further study of our children may help to furnish concrete criteria regarding the still diffuse notions about the constitutional components of emotional reactivity. For here we seem to have pure-culture examples of inborn autistic disturbances of affective contact.*

Leo Kanner, “Autistic disturbances of affective contact”, Nervous Child, 1943


He later wrote:  “The fact that an average of not more than eight patients per year [over twenty years] could be diagnosed with reasonable assurance as autistic in a center serving as a sort of diagnostic clearinghouse, speaks for the infrequency of the disease, especially if one considers that they recruit themselves from all over the North American continent…”

-Leo Kanner, “The specificity of early infantile autism” Acta Paedopsychiatrie, 1958


At about the same time, Hans Asperger, a scientist in Germany, identified a similar condition that’s now called Asperger’s syndrome.

Autism and schizophrenia remained linked in many researchers’ minds until the 1960s. It was only then that medical professionals began to have a separate understanding of autism in children.

From the 1960s through the 1970s, research into treatments for autism focused on medications such as LSD, electric shock, and behavioral change techniques. The latter relied on pain and punishment.

The “Refrigerator Mom Theory” was perpetuated by Bruno Bettelheim (psychologist) who in 1981 wrote:

“All my life, I have been working with children whose lives were destroyed because their mothers hated them.”


“Many children with autism have unusual diets, often associated with constipation, which might lead to non-specific abnormalities of the bowel.”

His theories have been largely discredited.  It was reported in The Creation of Dr. B, a biography written by Richard Pollack that his credentials were fraudulent and many of his claims exaggerated.  There have been multiple letters published in the Chicago Tribune & Chicago Reader from former students and a counselor from the Orthogenic School who portray Bettelheim in a very negative way including claims of physical, emotional and sexual abuse.  His claims of successfully treating children with Autism were reported to be invalid.   He died of suicide in 1990.

The important thing to note for families with children who have Autism is that they did not in any way create this condition in their children by being cold or unloving parents.  There has been no scientific basis for this outdated theory.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the role of behavioral therapy (ABA-applied behavioral analysis) and the use of highly controlled learning environments, occupational therapy and speech therapy emerged as the primary treatments for autism.

Also during the 1990’s, as the rates of Autism began to dramatically rise, parents began to discover that vitamins and special diets were helpful in the treatment of their children.   Some of the parents who were also trained physicians had children impacted by the disorder.  This began the movement of organized training using Bio-Medical treatments for Autism.

By the early 2000’s there were reported cases of children who had in fact recovered from Autism through the use of nutritionals and in some cases chelation.  There continues to be growing interest and evolving experience in treating children with Autism using nontraditional methods in Functional and Integrative Medicine clinics across the country.  Many clinics have been able to document the treatment of their patients as these children recovered from autism.