171 Years of Autism? (Revised)

I probably should have titled this post ‘171 Years of Observed Autistic Traits’.

When I came across the information in the two sections below, I didn’t respond well to all of it.  I’m still not entirely sure what to think about it. My reaction was, in part, due to seeing some of the awful ways Autistic traits have been historically misinterpreted.  There is a severe lack of correct knowledge in the field of Autism even to this day.

I’m also conflicted because I’m not certain it is even beneficial to consider any of it.  On one hand, I worry this post might be misinterpreted and somehow prove detrimental.  On the other hand, I firmly believe that a knowledge of history is required to prevent further similar errors.  It is undoubtedly most wise to learn from another’s mistakes rather than to make your own.  The information also seems important as it hints at an answer to the question of if Autism is a new, modern occurence.

I think because I feel so strongly about raising the awareness of exactly how Autistics are often misinterpreted, I will include at the end of this post the chart of Autistic behaviors and what they actually often mean.  Hopefully, that will provide some balance to the erroneous material of some of those others found linked to here.



First, The Well-Circulated ‘Origin of Autism in the Records’ Story

When one sets out to find out more about the history of Autism online, they immediately find a host of references tracing its origin to the following classic papers: Leo Kanner’s “Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact” (1943; links English Translation) and Hans Asperger’s “Autistic Psychopathy in Childhood “(1944; links to German version).

They also are likely to learn that the term ‘Autism’ first appeared in Eugene Bleuler’s book “Dementia Praecox” (1911) as pertaining to schizophrenic patients.

That’s likely all most people will learn about the history of Autism.  But is that really all there is to know?


Consider A Couple Overlooked Records

  • This Scientific American article discusses the 1925 paper of Grunya Efimovna Sukhareva “Die schizoiden Psychopathien im Kindesalter” (unfortunately, I only found pay-to-view versions of the paper online but this different article outlines the similarities between Sukhareva’s observations and the DSM-5).  In the paper, Sukhareva reports and describes observed Autistic features in a group of boys.  I’m just guessing, but I’d bet that the reason this paper has been consistently overlooked is because it was written by a female psychiatrist in 1925, decades before people believed women could be more than wives and mothers.


  • There is also an unusual 1848 record titled “Report made to the legislature of Massachusetts, upon idiocy.” by Samuel Gridley Howe.  This was written long before the word Autism existed.  It is difficult to read due to it featuring so many of the misconceptions and strange beliefs that were prevalent in that era, which are to such a degree that it made me wonder if anyone at that point in time could actually compose an objective unbiased statement.  I actually had to stop and remind myself that it was a very different time back then.  Women’s Suffrage only began that year and would take 70+ years to succeed.  It was also nearly 2 decades before slaves were emancipated. So it probably doesn’t need to be explained that very few people had any sort of rights and what constituted the expected norm was highly limited to supporting only those few who did have a say in the matter.   What makes this report unusual, however, is it at times notes instances where individuals possessed both superior and inferior abilities as relative to the common population.  While the concern of the report isn’t the Autistic criteria of today’s DSM, it is quite concerned with those who’ve a stark difference in their strengths and weaknesses which, I probably don’t need to explain, hints at developmental delays.  It also includes at the end a very long table reporting many characteristics of each of the 575 individuals considered.  The table includes, among other things, the ages of those people considered and notably lists a couple people as old as age 70, who would have been born circa 1778.  Remarkably, one (#319) was listed as age 103.

(Note: I discovered the existence of that last source from the Smithsonian article “The Early History of Autism in America“. )


To Correct The Misinformation: The Chart of Autistic Behaviors and What They Often Mean




2 thoughts on “171 Years of Autism? (Revised)

  1. I agree that revisiting history is not always easy but it is necessary. Alas, failing to do so leads to repetition (and I just amused myself way to much with that rewording). It is sad how often ignorance leads to negative responses. Nice work on the chart also.

    Liked by 1 person

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