first case of autism

Note: This article is part of a series on the history of autism treatment.

Origin of the term “Autism”

The first use of the word “autistic” was in the early 20th century, as a descriptor of symptoms. In 1912, Eugen Blueler used the term to define symptoms associated with schizophrenia. It wasn’t until 1943 that “autism” was used as a diagnostic term. In the first case of autism, Dr. Leo Kanner used the term to diagnose a social and emotional disorder. Previous observations of patients with symptoms of autism had led psychiatrists to a diagnosis of schizophrenia. The diagnosis of autism was used with eleven patients that Dr. Kanner was studying at the time, but the story began with one patient, Donald Triplett.

Donald Triplett, First Case of Autism

Donald Triplett was the first person to be diagnosed with autism. He was born in 1933 to a family in Forest, Mississippi. His family was well known and well respected in their small community. Before his diagnosis of autism, Donald had been placed in an institution. This was typical for children diagnosed with a mental disorder at that time. Parents of children who were diagnosed with a behavioral disorder were encouraged to place their children in a facility separate from their families. Donald was placed in an institution that was located in Sanatorium, Mississippi which was about 50 miles from Donald’s home in Forest. His parents were allowed to visit him monthly. Donald was taken to the institution at age three and remained there a year. He became more isolated during his time there, and this concerned his family. After a year in the institution, his parents brought him home, against the suggestion of the doctors. His parents were determined to find answers for themselves and for Donald.

In Search of Help for Donald

Donald’s parents began to seek out the help of specialists that could help them determine their son’s needs. In their search, they discovered Dr. Leo Kanner. Dr. Kanner was one of the nation’s top child psychiatrists and a professor at John Hopkins University. During Donald’s initial assessment, Donald’s father had given Dr. Kanner some notes that he had written regarding observations of Donald’s behavioral characteristics. These very detailed notes would prove to be essential in assisting Dr. Kanner with determining the terminology and behavioral patterns consistent with the diagnosis of autism. The descriptions included, “happiest when left alone,” “drawing into a shell and living inside himself” and “oblivious to things around him.”

Dr. Kanner’s Observations

Upon meeting Donald in person, Dr. Kanner had some observations of his own. He observed that
Donald had an explosive and seemingly irrelevant use of language, he referred to himself in third person, repeated words and phrases spoken to him and communicated his own desires by attributing them to others. Dr. Kanner would continually return to the description of ‘autistic’ that had been used in earlier years by Eugen Blueler to describe his own observations of his patients. He described this observation as “autistic disturbances of affective contact.” Dr. Kanner presented his findings on autism in The Nervous Child. He provided details of behavioral patterns and observations that were consistent in the eleven patients that he studied. This work went on to be essential in the field of clinical psychiatry and enabled those working with patients that exhibited these characteristics to use more accurate terminology.

A Better Understanding of Autism

In the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association (DSM-IV), autism is included in a wide category of pervasive developmental disorders. Autism continues to be an area of ongoing research, discussion, and debate.

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