When Was Autism Discovered?

Explore the fascinating journey of when autism was first discovered in the mid-20th century. Delve into the stories of pioneers like Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger who paved the way for our understanding of autism spectrum disorders.

judah schiller
Judah Schiller
June 11, 2024
Published On
June 11, 2024

Understanding the History of Autism

To truly grasp the journey of autism recognition, it is essential to explore its origins and the early perspectives surrounding this complex neurodevelopmental disorder.

The Origins of Autism

The question of when autism was first recognized is a topic of ongoing research and discussion. While autism has likely existed throughout human history, its understanding and recognition have evolved over time. Early writings and historical accounts offer glimpses of individuals who may have exhibited traits consistent with autism. However, it wasn't until the 20th century that autism began to be more systematically studied and recognized as a distinct condition.

Early Perspectives on Autism

In the early 20th century, various researchers and clinicians began to observe and document cases that resembled what we now understand as autism. Some notable figures who made contributions to the early understanding of autism include:

  • Dr. Itard (1775-1838): Dr. Itard's work with a child named Victor, known as the "Wild Boy of Aveyron," provided insights into developmental differences and the challenges individuals with atypical behaviors faced.
  • Dr. Eugen Bleuler (1857-1939): While primarily known for his work on schizophrenia, Dr. Bleuler coined the term "autism" in 1911 to describe a characteristic of withdrawal and self-absorption seen in individuals with schizophrenia.
  • Dr. Leo Kanner (1894-1981): A prominent figure in the history of autism, Dr. Kanner is often credited with identifying autism as a separate condition. In the 1940s, he published a groundbreaking paper describing a group of children who exhibited social and communication difficulties, coining the term "early infantile autism." This publication marked a significant milestone in the recognition of autism as a distinct entity.

While these early perspectives contributed to the understanding of autism, they did not fully capture the complexity and diversity within the autism spectrum. The recognition of autism as a spectrum disorder would come later, expanding our understanding of the condition.

As we delve deeper into the history of autism recognition, we will explore the pioneers of autism research, including the influential work of Leo Kanner in further sections.

The Discovery of Autism

The understanding and recognition of autism as a distinct condition have come a long way over the years. In this section, we will explore the pioneers of autism research and the role of Leo Kanner in the recognition of autism.

The Pioneers of Autism Research

The journey to understanding autism began with the groundbreaking work of several influential researchers. In the early 20th century, psychiatrists and psychologists started observing and documenting behaviors that were later recognized as characteristic of autism. These early pioneers laid the foundation for further research and exploration of the condition.

Leo Kanner and the Recognition of Autism

Leo Kanner, an Austrian-American psychiatrist, played a pivotal role in identifying and defining autism as a distinct condition. In 1943, Kanner published a groundbreaking paper titled "Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact," which described a group of children with unique characteristics and challenges.

In his paper, Kanner identified a pattern of behaviors that he had observed in several children, such as social withdrawal, communication difficulties, and repetitive behaviors. He recognized that these children exhibited a distinct and previously unrecognized condition, which he referred to as "early infantile autism."

Kanner's work was significant because it provided a comprehensive description of the characteristics and challenges faced by individuals with autism. His research helped bring awareness to the condition and laid the foundation for further studies and advancements in the field.

The recognition of autism by Leo Kanner marked a turning point in the understanding of this complex condition. It opened the doors to further research, diagnosis, and support for individuals with autism.

As we delve further into the history and milestones of autism recognition, we gain a deeper understanding of how far we have come in our knowledge and acceptance of this unique neurodevelopmental disorder.

Key Milestones in Autism Recognition

The recognition and understanding of autism have evolved over time through the contributions of pioneering researchers and the expansion of knowledge and understanding. Let's explore some key milestones in the recognition of autism.

Kanner's Landmark Publication

In 1943, Dr. Leo Kanner, an Austrian-born American psychiatrist, published a groundbreaking paper that is widely regarded as the first comprehensive description of autism. In his paper, titled "Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact," Kanner described a group of eleven children who exhibited similar patterns of behavior, characterized by social withdrawal, communication difficulties, and repetitive behaviors. He introduced the term "early infantile autism" to describe this condition.

Dr. Kanner's work provided a significant foundation for the recognition of autism as a distinct developmental disorder. His observations and detailed case studies laid the groundwork for subsequent research and the understanding of autism as a separate diagnosis.

The Influence of Hans Asperger

Around the same time that Dr. Leo Kanner was conducting his research, Austrian pediatrician Dr. Hans Asperger was also making significant contributions to the understanding of autism. In 1944, Dr. Asperger published a paper describing a group of children who demonstrated similar social and communication difficulties but exhibited different behavioral characteristics compared to the children described by Dr. Kanner.

Dr. Asperger's work highlighted a milder form of autism that became known as Asperger's syndrome. His research emphasized the importance of recognizing the diverse presentation of autism, leading to a broader understanding of the autism spectrum.

Expansion of Knowledge and Understanding

In the years following the landmark publications by Dr. Kanner and Dr. Asperger, there was a growing recognition of autism as a distinct developmental disorder. Researchers and clinicians began to document and study cases, expanding the knowledge and understanding of the condition.

Over time, the diagnostic criteria for autism evolved, with various revisions and updates to capture the diversity of presentations within the autism spectrum. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) played a crucial role in defining and refining the diagnostic criteria. The DSM-5, published in 2013, introduced the term "autism spectrum disorder" (ASD) to encompass the range of autism-related conditions.

The increasing awareness and understanding of autism have paved the way for improved support and resources for individuals with autism and their families. It has also led to advancements in research, early detection, and intervention strategies.

The recognition of autism and the milestones achieved along the way have contributed to shifting attitudes and acceptance, making a positive impact on the lives of individuals with autism and their communities.

Evolving Definitions and Diagnostic Criteria

As our understanding of autism has deepened over time, so too have the definitions and diagnostic criteria associated with this complex condition. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) has played a significant role in shaping the way autism is recognized and diagnosed. Let's explore the evolution of definitions and diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders

The DSM, published by the American Psychiatric Association, is a widely used manual that provides standardized criteria for the classification and diagnosis of mental disorders. It has undergone several revisions over the years, each reflecting advancements in our understanding of various conditions, including autism.

Changes in the Definition of Autism Spectrum Disorder

The definition of autism has evolved significantly since it was first recognized. The DSM-III, published in 1980, introduced the diagnostic category of "infantile autism" as a subset of pervasive developmental disorders (PDD). This marked a major step in recognizing autism as a distinct condition.

In subsequent revisions, such as the DSM-III-R and DSM-IV, the concept of PDD was expanded to include several subcategories, including autistic disorder, Asperger's disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS). These distinctions were based on differences in the severity and nature of symptoms.

With the release of the DSM-5 in 2013, these subcategories were consolidated under the umbrella term "autism spectrum disorder" (ASD). This change reflected a shift towards recognizing autism as a spectrum, encompassing a range of symptoms and levels of impairment. The DSM-5 criteria for ASD emphasize two core areas of difficulty: social communication and restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior.

Current Understanding of Autism

Our current understanding of autism is grounded in the recognition of its diverse presentation and individual variability. Today, ASD is recognized as a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects social interaction, communication, and behavior. It is characterized by a wide range of symptoms and levels of functioning, which can vary greatly from person to person.

Diagnosing autism involves a comprehensive evaluation that assesses the individual's developmental history, observed behaviors, and social communication skills. Professionals, such as psychologists and developmental pediatricians, utilize standardized assessment tools and diagnostic criteria, such as those outlined in the DSM-5, to make an accurate diagnosis.

The diagnostic criteria and understanding of autism continue to evolve as researchers and clinicians gain new insights. As a result, staying informed about changes in the field is crucial for individuals seeking a diagnosis or supporting someone with autism.

As our understanding of autism advances, so does our ability to provide support, resources, and interventions for individuals with autism. This progress contributes to improved outcomes and a greater acceptance and understanding of autism within society.

Impact and Progress

Since the initial recognition of autism, there have been significant shifts in attitudes, advances in research and treatment, as well as increased support and resources for individuals with autism.

Shifting Attitudes and Acceptance

Over the years, there has been a gradual shift in attitudes towards autism and greater acceptance of individuals on the autism spectrum. People are becoming more aware of the diverse range of strengths and challenges that individuals with autism possess. This increased awareness has led to improved understanding and empathy, reducing the stigma often associated with autism. As a result, there has been a growing movement towards inclusivity and promoting neurodiversity in society.

Advances in Research and Treatment

Advancements in research have played a crucial role in deepening our understanding of autism and improving the lives of individuals on the spectrum. Researchers have made significant strides in identifying genetic and environmental factors that contribute to autism, leading to a more comprehensive understanding of its causes. This research has also paved the way for the development of targeted interventions and therapies that address the specific needs of individuals with autism.

In recent years, there has been a focus on early intervention, recognizing the importance of diagnosing and providing support at an early age. Early identification and intervention can lead to improved outcomes and better long-term development for individuals with autism. In addition, ongoing research continues to explore new treatment options and innovative approaches to support individuals on the autism spectrum.

Support and Resources for Individuals with Autism

As awareness and understanding of autism have grown, so has the availability of support and resources for individuals with autism and their families. Many organizations and support networks provide a wide range of services, including educational programs, therapy options, and support groups. These resources aim to empower individuals with autism, promote their independence, and enhance their overall quality of life.

Additionally, there has been an increase in public initiatives and policies focused on providing accommodations and inclusion for individuals with autism. Schools, workplaces, and community organizations are working to create environments that are accessible and supportive of individuals on the autism spectrum.

The impact and progress made in the field of autism have transformed the lives of individuals on the spectrum and their families. Through increased acceptance, advancements in research and treatment, and the availability of support and resources, we continue to strive for a more inclusive society that embraces and celebrates the unique strengths and abilities of individuals with autism.


Reflecting on the history of autism discovery, it's remarkable how our understanding has evolved over time. Autism wasn't officially recognized until the mid-20th century, and even then, it took years of observation, research, and advocacy to shed light on this complex spectrum of neurodevelopmental differences.

The journey began in the 1940s when pioneers like Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger independently documented cases of children with unique social and communication challenges. Their groundbreaking work laid the foundation for what we now understand as autism spectrum disorders.

Over the decades, our perception of autism has expanded beyond narrow stereotypes, recognizing the diversity of experiences within the spectrum. The discovery of autism wasn't a one-time event but rather an ongoing process shaped by the contributions of researchers, clinicians, individuals with autism, and their families.

As we stand in the present, it's heartening to see increased awareness and acceptance of autism. Society is gradually moving away from viewing autism as a "disorder" to appreciating it as a different way of experiencing the world. This shift in perspective fosters inclusivity and emphasizes the importance of understanding, supporting, and celebrating the unique strengths of individuals on the autism spectrum.

The discovery of autism is a testament to the power of human curiosity, compassion, and collaboration. It's a reminder that our understanding of neurodiversity is ever-evolving, and each step forward brings us closer to a more inclusive and empathetic world for everyone.