An Autism Timeline

From the TUC handbook, ‘Autism in the Workplace’.

1910: Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler coined the term ‘autism’, derived from the Greek word autós (αὐτός, meaning self). Bleuler was researching the symptoms of schizophrenia and identified a ‘withdrawal’ present in some patients as autism. 

1943: Austrian-American child psychiatrist Leo Kanner described autism as a distinct condition in his paper Autistic disturbances of affective contact. Kanner established ‘early infantile autism’ as a childhood psychiatric disorder, classified under schizophrenia. 

1944: Austrian paediatrician Hans Asperger published Autistic Psychopathy in Childhood, based on studies of boys (his ‘little professors’), describing a ‘milder’, ‘higher-functioning’ condition later known as ‘Asperger syndrome’. 

1960s–1970s: Research into treatments focused on medications such as LSD, electric shock and behaviour change techniques that often relied on pain and punishment. 

1962: Founding of what was later called The National Autistic Society. 

1966: A study in Middlesex estimated the rate of autism in children at 0.04 per cent – the most commonly cited figure until the 1980s. 

1967: The International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems of the World Health Organisation classified autism as a form of schizophrenia. 

1971: Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim promoted the ‘refrigerator mother’ theory, which holds that cold, unnurturing parents, especially mothers, are to blame for autism. 

1977: American psychiatrist Susan Folstein and British psychiatrist Michael Rutter published a study of autistic twins in which they prove that autism has a genetic basis. 

1979: British psychiatrists Lorna Wing and Judith Gould presented the idea of a ‘triad of impairments’ and an autism spectrum. 

1980: The third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III) included ‘infantile autism’ as a Pervasive Developmental Disorder – the first time autism appeared as a distinct disorder rather than linked to schizophrenia. 

1981: Lorna Wing introduced the term Asperger Syndrome.

1987: ‘Autistic disorder’ replaced ‘infantile autism’ in the diagnostic manual. 

1988: The film RainMan raised public awareness of autism. 

1989: Christopher Gillberg, a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry, published the first diagnostic criteria for Asperger syndrome. Michael Rutter, Ann LeCouteur and Catherine Lord published an assessment for autism, called the Autism Diagnostic Interview. 

1980s–1990s: Behaviour therapy and controlled learning environments emerged as primary ‘treatments’ for many forms of autism. Other treatments included medical and dietary therapy. 

1994: Asperger’s syndrome was added to DSM-IV as a progressive developmental disorder. 

1998: Andrew Wakefield and others published a controversial study in the Lancet suggesting that the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine causes autism. The research was later discredited. 

1999: The Autism Research Centre (ARC) was set up at Cambridge University. 

2000: The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Autism (APPGA) was launched. 

2007: Scientists found genetic bases of autism spectrum disorders. 

2007: The US Senate designated April as National Autism Awareness Month. The following year, the United Nations General Assembly declared 2 April as World Autism Awareness Day. 

2013: Updated DSM-V controversially merged Asperger Syndrome under autism. 

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