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  • Writer's pictureVictoria Black

Historical and Modern Context of Autism

Exclusion makes things special. It says to an individual who somehow met the criteria, “Yes! You belong here. Your existence is valid to me.” To another person, it closes a door and implies, “There’s no space for you here.” Examples of such exclusion are in nearly every space, especially those involving neurotypical and neurodiverse people. One space where those with autism faced explicit exclusion was when obtaining a professional medical diagnosis that persisted until the 1980s. There were some people who stepped up and publicized successful interventions as well as identifiable symptoms of those with autism.

According to Autism Speaks, “Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD) refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech, and nonverbal communication.” Essentially, autism presents itself differently in each individual but learning how to identify the symptoms of the disorder is vital when searching for helpful resources. Generally, pediatricians and child psychologists are able to identify these symptoms in an individual at a very young age and determine whether or not an individual will need an intervention to develop adequate social, verbal, nonverbal, and behavioral skills. While researchers have not yet been able to identify the exact cause of autism, they know that it is determined by genetic and environmental factors. While there are many questions yet to be answered about autism, it’s important to understand the historical exclusivity that those on the ASD spectrum encounter have encountered and continue to deal with. In 1995, Autism Speaks estimated that autism affected only one out of 500 people, whereas in 2020, according to the CDC, autism affected one out of 54 children. The drastic increase of formally diagnosed people was not seen because of an increase in mental illness; but because of a broader definition of autism that was implemented over the past 30 years. Globally, autism affects 1.5 percent of children. As citizens of this world, it’s our job to ensure that all spaces—educational, social, professional or otherwise—accommodate their needs and insights.

While conversations about disorders and mental disabilities became an open dialogue, it wasn’t always this way. In 1943, Leo Kanner, a psychologist, published a paper about his observations of 11 children diagnosed with autism. Kanner noted that the children seemed to “inhabit private worlds, ignoring the people around them, even their own parents.” Kanner declared that autism was very rare and a result of ineffective parenting, claiming that “The children were kept neatly in a refrigerator which didn’t defrost.” The patients were excluded when Kanner isolated his patients and delegated them to particular families.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that people began to test Kanner’s theories on the population size and causes of autism. One pioneer of this research was Lorna Wing, an English psychiatrist, whose daughter dealt with severe undiagnosed autism. Working with Judith Gould to identify children with autism in Camberwell, London, they quickly found that Kanner’s model theory was completely inaccurate. Relying on the symptoms of autism, Gould and Wing found a range in people who fit the criteria for an autism diagnosis. While some children were talkative and eager to share their knowledge on a specific subject, others showed that they would benefit significantly from interventions that were only available to those with professional diagnoses. Having debunked Kanner’s theory, Wing continued on her research journey and found a paper published by Hans Asperger, an Austrian pediatrician. In Asperger’s publication from 1944, one year after Kanner’s, he believed that autism was caused by “a lifelong polygenetic disability that requires compassionate support and accommodations throughout one’s whole life.” Having found justifiable information for Asperger’s theory, Wing and Gould advocated for a broader, more representative definition for autism through the American Psychiatric Association.The changes they advocated for went into effect in the late-1980s and early-1990s, resulting in an increase of people diagnosed with ASD.

As more information is found and diagnoses become more reflective of the range of symptoms present in the ASD community, inclusivity within the numbers and members of the community will increase. Because staunch advocates for research and opportunities for those with autism, there has been a dramatic shift in how families and individuals approach services for mental illnesses. While it’s inarguable that humanity still has a long way to go as stereotypes and general misconceptions on the cause(s) of autism continue to be dismantled, the world has the power to make these changes. If we continue to make spaces for neurodiverse voices to be heard, believed, and take action to support them and make legitimate information viable, we will be heading in a uniquely progressive and inclusive direction.

Works Cited

“What Is Autism?” Autism Speaks, Autism Speaks Inc., Accessed 2 June 2021.

“All About Autism | Rajandran Muthoo | TEDxYouth@SKIS.” YouTube, uploaded by TEDx Talks, 19 Dec. 2017,

“Steve Silberman: The forgotten history of autism.” YouTube, uploaded by TED, 17 June 2015,

“Medicine: Frosted Children.” TIME.Com, TIME USA, LLC, 26 Apr. 1948,,33009,798484,00.html.

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