what was autism called before

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

The symptoms and characteristics of Autism have been present in our society for some time. It is true that the first diagnosis of early infantile autism was not shared until 1943, but before that time the disorder was labeled with other terminology. The definition of autistic symptoms ranged in its descriptions but it was assumed that individuals that presented the symptoms of Autism, would be labeled with ‘mental retardation’.

Dr. Langdon Down and his Research of Mental Retardation

In 1877, Dr. John Langdon Down, the first person to describe Down’s Syndrome, researched mental retardation. He used the description of ‘developmental retardation’ to describe symptoms that would be similar to what we see in Autism patients today. This also led him to use the term ‘idiot savant’ to describe those clients that displayed the symptoms of autism but also the exceptional skills that would be considered ‘genius’. Many of the skills that were present are typically related to artistic, musical or mathematical brilliance.

Dr. Down’s Categories of Mental Retardation

Dr. Down had divided mental retardation into three categories. The first category was ‘congenital’, in which hereditary factors were most present in diagnosing mental retardation. This category made up a majority of his patients. The second category was termed ‘accidental’ in which injury or disease occurred late in the pregnancy, at birth or after birth. A third category was termed ‘developmental’, but was a category that included individuals that were also impossible to include in the other categories. They presented symptoms that were unlike the previous categories. The group of persons in this category displayed similar symptoms to what would be labeled as autistic today.

Autism and Schizophrenia

In 1911, Eugen Bleuler used the terminology ‘autistic’ to describe symptoms of schizophrenia. He also described those schizophrenic patients with autistic symptoms as having a withdrawal from reality. Autism has since been regarded as a separate distinction, apart from schizophrenia. It is considered to be on a continuum of various disorders that have overlapping neurodevelopmental and genetics charateristics, according to one hypothesis. However, another hypothesis claims that the two disorders, autism and schizophrenia, are very distinct according to genetic data. In reality, the conversation about various developmental disorders continues as we attempt to understand autism and its origin. In 1927, Eugene Minkowski, a student of Bleuler, further defined autism as the ‘trouble generator’ of schizophrenia. He described patients with this disorder as having a lack of connectedness or unity with people and thus created a disturbance in the structure of the self.

Autism as a Diagnosis

With all of the uses of the autistic terminology, the diagnosis of Autism did not occur until 1943 and then in 1944 by Hans Asperger. Kanner would call the discovery of his syndrome, Kanner’s Syndrome, or Early Infantile Autism. Asperger would call his discovery Asperger’s syndrome, in which there were similar symptoms to Kanner’s description of Autism. However, Asperger’s patients exhibited stronger language ability and above average intellectual understanding in addition to the similar characteristics of Autism.

Movement Toward the Positive

It is easy to see the movement toward a more accurate terminology of the diagnosis of Autism is a movement away from some of the more negative terminology of the past. Autism is very recognizable and is frequently a topic in the news cycle. Releasing some of the descriptions of Autism from the past can help us navigate the conversations in a welcoming manner for the future as we move toward inclusion for all people.