What Was Autism Called Before It Was Called Autism?

Embark on a human-centric journey through the history of autism labels. Discover the names and stories that preceded the term "autism" and witness the evolving understanding of neurodiversity.

judah schiller
Judah Schiller
June 12, 2024
Published On
June 12, 2024

The Evolution of Autism Terminology

Understanding the history of autism involves exploring the evolution of terminology used to describe the condition. The journey from early descriptions to the current understanding of autism has seen significant changes in the way it is labeled and diagnosed. In this section, we will delve into the history of autism and explore what it was called before it was officially recognized as autism.

Understanding the History of Autism

The history of autism dates back to the early 20th century when researchers began to observe and document behaviors and characteristics that are now associated with the condition. However, it wasn't until the mid-20th century that autism started to gain recognition as a distinct disorder.

What Was Autism Called Before It Was Called Autism?

Before the term "autism" came into use, there were various other terms used to describe similar behaviors and conditions. These terms reflected the understanding and knowledge of the time and paved the way for the recognition of autism as a separate entity. Some of the previous names for autism include:

Previous Names for Autism

  • Childhood Schizophrenia.
  • Infantile Psychosis.
  • Schizoid Disorder of Childhood.
  • Kanner's SyndromeAsperger's Syndrome.

These earlier terms were associated with different researchers and clinicians who made significant contributions to our understanding of autism. Leo Kanner, an American psychiatrist, is credited with introducing the term "early infantile autism" to describe the condition. Hans Asperger, an Austrian pediatrician, later identified a milder form of autism that came to be known as "Asperger's Syndrome."

By examining the historical terms for autism, we gain insight into the progression of knowledge and understanding surrounding the condition. The recognition of autism as a distinct disorder has gone through significant changes over time, leading to the development of more accurate diagnostic criteria and terminology.

Understanding the history and evolution of autism terminology is essential for appreciating the progress made in recognizing and supporting individuals with autism. By recognizing the past, we can better advocate for autism awareness and acceptance in the present and future.

Early Descriptions and Diagnoses

To truly understand the evolution of autism, it is important to explore the early descriptions and diagnoses of autism-like behaviors. These historical accounts provide valuable insights into how autism was perceived and identified before it was officially recognized as a distinct condition. Let's delve into the historical accounts of autism-like behaviors and the precursors to the term "autism."

Historical Accounts of Autism-Like Behaviors

Throughout history, there have been various observations and accounts of behaviors that align with what we now recognize as autism. Although these historical records may not explicitly refer to autism, they provide glimpses into the existence of autism-like traits.

One notable historical account is that of John Langdon Down, a British physician who observed individuals with what he called "Mongolian idiocy" in the late 19th century. Down's observations highlighted individuals who exhibited characteristic features, such as almond-shaped eyes and a flat facial profile, which are now associated with Down syndrome. However, some of the individuals described also displayed behaviors reminiscent of autism.

Another important historical account is that of Hans Christian Andersen, the renowned Danish author. Andersen's personal diaries and letters reveal his own experiences and observations of social difficulties, repetitive behaviors, and intense interests, which align with autistic traits. Although Andersen's experiences predate the formal recognition of autism, they shed light on the presence of autism-like behaviors in individuals during that time.

Precursors to the Term "Autism"

Before the term "autism" emerged, there were several precursors that described behaviors similar to those associated with autism. These precursors laid the foundation for our understanding of the condition.

In the early 20th century, Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler introduced the term "schizophrenia" to describe a range of psychiatric conditions, including some cases that displayed autistic-like symptoms. However, Bleuler's concept of schizophrenia encompassed a broader spectrum of conditions, making it difficult to distinguish autism as a distinct entity.

It wasn't until the mid-20th century that the term "autism" began to take shape. In 1943, American child psychiatrist Leo Kanner published a seminal paper on "early infantile autism," in which he described a group of children who exhibited similar social and communication challenges. Kanner's work played a crucial role in establishing autism as a separate diagnostic category.

Around the same time, Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger independently identified a group of children with what he called "autistic psychopathy" or "Asperger's syndrome." Asperger's research highlighted individuals with milder social difficulties and a distinct pattern of strengths and weaknesses.

These early descriptions and diagnoses laid the groundwork for the understanding and recognition of autism as a distinct condition. The subsequent diagnostic shift and changes in terminology further shaped our perception of autism, as explored in the next section.

By examining the historical accounts of autism-like behaviors and the precursors to the term "autism," we gain a deeper appreciation for the journey of understanding and identifying autism as a unique neurodevelopmental condition. Understanding the past helps us better comprehend the present and informs our efforts in promoting autism awareness, acceptance, and support for individuals on the spectrum.

Early Diagnostic Labels

Throughout history, the understanding and classification of autism have evolved. In this section, we explore some of the early diagnostic labels that were used to describe what we now know as autism. These include "Schizophrenia" as identified by Eugen Bleuler, "Early Infantile Autism" as identified by Leo Kanner, and "Asperger's Syndrome" as identified by Hans Asperger.

Eugen Bleuler and "Schizophrenia"

In the early 20th century, Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler played a significant role in shaping the understanding of autism. Bleuler introduced the term "Schizophrenia" in 1911 to describe a group of psychiatric disorders characterized by disturbances in thought processes, emotions, and behavior. Bleuler's concept of schizophrenia included a broader range of symptoms than what is currently understood as schizophrenia.

Within Bleuler's concept of schizophrenia, he recognized subtypes that included individuals with what we now understand as autism. These individuals exhibited symptoms such as social withdrawal, communication difficulties, and repetitive behaviors. Despite this recognition, autism was not explicitly differentiated from other forms of schizophrenia at the time.

Leo Kanner and "Early Infantile Autism"

In 1943, Leo Kanner, an Austrian-American psychiatrist, published a groundbreaking paper describing a distinct condition he termed "Early Infantile Autism." Kanner identified a group of children who exhibited unique characteristics, such as social isolation, language delays, repetitive behaviors, and resistance to change. His observations and description of these children laid the foundation for recognizing autism as a separate entity from other psychiatric disorders.

Kanner's work was instrumental in highlighting the distinct features of autism and bringing it to the attention of the medical community. His term "Early Infantile Autism" emphasized the early onset of symptoms and the pervasive nature of the disorder. This term was widely used for many years to describe the condition we now simply refer to as autism.

Hans Asperger and "Asperger's Syndrome"

Around the same time as Leo Kanner, Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger was independently studying a group of children who exhibited similar characteristics to those described by Kanner. In 1944, Asperger published his findings on what he called "Autistic Psychopathy" or "Autistic Psychopathic Personality Disorder." His work focused on individuals who had normal language development but struggled with social interaction, displayed restricted interests, and exhibited repetitive behaviors.

Asperger's observations provided valuable insights into a subgroup of individuals within the broader autism spectrum. In the following decades, his work gained recognition, and the term "Asperger's Syndrome" was introduced to describe this specific profile of individuals with high-functioning autism.

In 2013, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) merged Asperger's Syndrome into the broader category of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). This change aimed to capture the spectrum of symptoms and eliminate potential confusion surrounding different diagnostic labels.

Understanding the historical diagnostic labels associated with autism helps us appreciate the progression of knowledge and the recognition of autism as a distinct condition. By exploring the contributions of Bleuler, Kanner, and Asperger, we gain valuable insights into the evolution of autism and the journey toward a more comprehensive understanding of this complex condition.

The Diagnostic Shift

The term "autism" as we know it today was first introduced in the early 20th century. It was Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler who initially used the term in his work on schizophrenia. Bleuler used "autism" to describe a withdrawal from social interaction and a tendency to be absorbed in one's own thoughts or fantasies. However, at this time, autism was not recognized as a separate condition but rather as a symptom of schizophrenia.

Changes in Diagnostic Criteria and Terminology

It wasn't until the mid-20th century that autism started to be recognized as a distinct condition separate from schizophrenia. This shift began with the groundbreaking work of Leo Kanner, an Austrian-American psychiatrist. In 1943, Kanner published a seminal paper describing a group of children who displayed a unique set of characteristics he called "Early Infantile Autism." Kanner's work marked a significant milestone in the history of autism, as it was the first time a specific diagnostic label was given to the condition.

Around the same time, another psychiatrist named Hans Asperger was independently conducting research on a group of children with similar traits. In 1944, Asperger published his findings on what he called "Autistic Psychopathy" or "Asperger's Syndrome." Asperger's work further contributed to the understanding and recognition of autism as a distinct condition.

Over the years, there have been changes in diagnostic criteria and terminology for autism. In 1980, the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III) was published, which included "Autistic Disorder" as a separate category. This marked a shift towards a more standardized and specific diagnosis of autism.

In subsequent revisions of the DSM, the diagnostic criteria for autism have evolved. The DSM-IV introduced the concept of autism as a spectrum, encompassing a range of severity levels. This recognition led to the inclusion of Asperger's Syndrome and other related conditions under the umbrella term "Autism Spectrum Disorders" (ASD). However, in the most recent edition, the DSM-5, Asperger's Syndrome has been folded into the broader category of ASD.

The diagnostic shift over the years has been instrumental in improving our understanding of autism and providing a clearer framework for diagnosis and treatment. It has also paved the way for increased awareness and acceptance of individuals on the autism spectrum.

By exploring the history of autism and the diagnostic changes that have taken place, we gain valuable insights into the evolution of our understanding of this complex condition. Understanding the past is crucial for promoting autism awareness, acceptance, and providing support to individuals on the autism spectrum and their families.

Reflecting on the Past

Understanding the history of autism is not only fascinating but also essential for gaining insight into the experiences of individuals on the autism spectrum. Reflecting on the past allows us to appreciate the progress made in our understanding of autism and its impact on individuals and society. In this section, we will explore the importance of understanding autism history and the implications it has for autism awareness and acceptance.

The Importance of Understanding Autism History

Examining the history of autism provides us with a deeper understanding of how the understanding and perception of autism has evolved over time. It allows us to appreciate the dedicated efforts of researchers, clinicians, and individuals who have contributed to our current knowledge of autism spectrum disorders.

By understanding how autism was perceived in the past, we can challenge misconceptions and stereotypes that may still persist today. It allows us to recognize the progress made in terms of recognizing and supporting individuals on the autism spectrum.

Additionally, understanding autism history can help individuals with autism and their families feel a sense of belonging and validation. It provides a context for their experiences and challenges, knowing that they are not alone and that their experiences have been recognized throughout history.

Implications for Autism Awareness and Acceptance

Studying the history of autism has significant implications for autism awareness and acceptance. It helps us move beyond a narrow understanding of autism and embrace the diversity within the autism spectrum.

By learning about the previous terms used to describe autism, such as "childhood schizophrenia" or "early infantile autism," we can appreciate the progress made in accurately diagnosing and understanding autism. This knowledge allows us to challenge stigmatizing beliefs and promote a more inclusive and accepting society.

Understanding the historical context also highlights the need to continually improve diagnostic criteria, support systems, and interventions for individuals on the autism spectrum. It reminds us of the importance of ongoing research and advocacy to ensure that individuals with autism receive the resources and understanding they deserve.

In summary, reflecting on the past and understanding the history of autism is crucial for appreciating how far we have come in our understanding and support of individuals on the autism spectrum. It helps promote autism awareness, acceptance, and a more inclusive society that values the unique abilities and experiences of individuals with autism.

Summary

In wrapping up our exploration of what autism was called before it was termed "autism," it's like uncovering a piece of history that reflects our evolving understanding of neurodiversity. Before the label "autism" emerged, individuals with similar traits were often given various names, such as "childhood schizophrenia" or "childhood psychosis."

This journey through nomenclature reveals not just a shift in terminology but a broader transformation in how we perceive and approach differences in neurological development. It's a reminder that the human experience is vast and diverse, and our attempts to understand it have evolved over time.

As we reflect on the past, let's acknowledge the progress made in recognizing and appreciating the unique qualities of individuals on the autism spectrum. By understanding the history of labels, we gain insight into the challenges faced by those who didn't fit into conventional molds and the importance of embracing a more inclusive and empathetic perspective.

In essence, what autism was called before is more than just a linguistic shift—it's a narrative of growth, learning, and a continuous journey towards a world that values and celebrates neurodiversity.

Sources