The History of Autism

August 3, 2019

 Photo by Katie Moum on Unsplash


Autism is a developmental disability that affects millions of people around the world. According to and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is one of the most prevalent neurological conditions, with about 1 percent of the world’s population being on the spectrum and more than 3.5 million Americans being diagnosed with autism. Generally, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) causes those affected by it to have a harder time interpreting non-verbal social cues and holding back-and-forth conversations, mainly preferring to talk about themselves or a specialized area of interest. Due to these symptoms, and depending on how severe the ASD is within the person, it can be much harder for people on the spectrum to form and maintain friendships and relationships. However, by taking social skills courses, people on the spectrum can learn how to manage these symptoms and be more socially aware, leading to increased opportunities to make friends and build meaningful relationships. 


According to, the word “autism” is derived from the Greek word “autos,” meaning “self,” because a person with autism can be socially isolated and therefore an “isolated self.” The first person to use the term “autism” was a Swiss psychiatrist named Eugene Bleurer, who used it around 1911 to discuss symptoms of schizophrenia. Once researchers in the United States started studying socially withdrawn children in the 1940s, a doctor named Leo Kanner began using the term “autism” to describe children with social and emotional issues. Another scientist, based in Germany, named Hans Asperger made similar observations, and therefore the former sub-type of autism called Asperger’s Syndrome is named after him. Autism continued to be associated with schizophrenia until the 1960s, when medical professionals were able to separate the two conditions conceptually.


Starting from the 1960s and into the 1970s, different types of treatment were experimented with to treat the symptoms of autism, including LSD, electric shock, and techniques to modify the behaviors, with some of those treatments involving pain. However, from the 1980s to the 1990s, behavioral therapy and highly controlled learning environments became the most common forms of treatment for people with ASD. In the present day, the most well-known treatments are behavioral therapy and language therapy.


According to, there is a manual that is published by the American Psychological Association (APA) every few years called the Diagnostic Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM) to help medical professionals diagnose people with mental health conditions. In the 5th edition of this manual, which was released in 2013, the criteria to diagnose anyone with autism were changed. This was done because the APA prefers to demonstrate a developed understanding of these conditions. As it pertains to autism, the objectives for the updates were to get a more accurate diagnosis, observe symptoms that can be treated and supported, and to evaluate the severity of the autism.


Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash


Before these updates were put into effect, a person on the autism spectrum could potentially be diagnosed with four different subtypes of the condition: autistic disorder, Asperger’s Syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder unless otherwise specified . As of 2013, these four subtypes were condensed into the umbrella diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder and the new criteria for noticing symptoms went from three categories to two. The former three categories were social skills issues, language and communication issues and repetitive and restricted behaviors. These turned into the two new categories of social skills issues and repetitive behaviors. There was a new symptom added to the criteria called sensory issues to account for people on the spectrum being sensitive to certain things in the environment, such as lights, sounds, and being touched.


Autism spectrum disorder can be a challenging disability to live with, for the people on the spectrum and for their families. Since everyone on the spectrum is affected by it differently, the treatment options are varied. A person can be high-functioning and live independently and some need to live with a family member or in a nursing home for their entire lives. If a person with ASD can learn how to socialize and self-control their quirks, they have every capability of making friends and leading productive lives. With support and awareness groups growing in the United States and around the world, hopefully autism will be more understood and accepted as the years go by.  


Michael Westwood is a 25 year old college graduate from Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication. Independent of being a contributor to Step Up, he is looking to pursue a career in professional writing of some type. His hobbies include watching professional wrestling (e.g. WWE and other promotions) and watching select TV sitcoms from today's television (e.g. Big Bang Theory, The Goldbergs) and classic programs as well (e.g. Seinfeld, Frasier, Everybody Loves Raymond). He also has an ongoing online forum designed to inform people about the autism spectrum called "Ask Mike," which is part of an autism awareness group called All 4 Autism, which is based in Florence, South Carolina. 


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