Are you a BCBA or an RBT? Join The New Golden Steps ABA Fellowship Program
See Open Roles
We do not have a commercial relationship with any of these companies and have not otherwise been endorsed by, are not affiliated with, and do not intend to suggest a connection to, any of the companies listed on the page.

What Was Autism Called Before It Was Called Autism?

In this article, we will explore the history of autism and its many names throughout the years.

The Early Days

The earliest descriptions of autism-like symptoms can be traced back to the early 1800s, but it wasn't until the 20th century that autism was recognized as a distinct condition.

In 1801, French physician Jean-Etienne Dominique Esquirol described a condition he called "idiocy" that included symptoms such as a lack of speech and social withdrawal. In the years that followed, other physicians began to describe similar conditions, but it wasn't until 1943 that autism was first identified as a distinct condition by American psychiatrist Leo Kanner.

Kanner's work paved the way for more research into autism, and in the decades that followed, our understanding of the condition has grown significantly. We now know that autism is a complex neurodevelopmental disorder that affects communication, social interaction, and behavior. While there is still much we don't understand about autism, ongoing research is helping us to better understand the condition and develop new treatments to help those affected.

The Emergence of the Term "Autism"

The term "autism" has an interesting origin. It was first introduced by Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler in 1911. Bleuler used the term to describe a group of symptoms that he observed in some of his patients with schizophrenia. The term "autism" is derived from the Greek word "autos," which means "self." Bleuler used the term to describe the tendency of his patients to withdraw into their own worlds and disengage from reality.

Since Bleuler's time, the term "autism" has evolved to become a diagnosis of its own, separate from schizophrenia. Autism is now recognized as a developmental disorder that affects communication, social interaction, and behavior. While the term "autism" was once used to describe a symptom of another disorder, it is now a recognized condition that affects millions of people worldwide.

As our understanding of autism continues to grow, so too does our ability to support and accommodate individuals with autism. With the right resources and support, individuals with autism can lead fulfilling and meaningful lives. It's important to continue to educate ourselves and others about autism, in order to break down barriers and create a more inclusive and understanding society.

The Evolving Understanding of Autism

In the early 1900s, autism was often misunderstood and misdiagnosed. It was seen as a form of schizophrenia or a type of intellectual disability. However, as research into the condition progressed, it became clear that autism was a distinct disorder with its own unique set of symptoms.

In 1943, child psychiatrist Leo Kanner published a groundbreaking paper that described a group of children with a distinct set of symptoms that he called "early infantile autism." Kanner's paper was the first to describe autism as a separate disorder, and his work helped to raise awareness of the condition.

Since then, a great deal of research has been conducted on autism. We now know that autism is a spectrum disorder, meaning that it can affect individuals in a wide variety of ways. Some people with autism may struggle with social interactions and communication, while others may have highly specialized interests or repetitive behaviors.

Despite the progress that has been made in understanding autism, there is still much work to be done. Many people with autism face significant challenges in their daily lives, and there is still much that we don't understand about the condition. However, with ongoing research and advocacy efforts, we can continue to improve our understanding of autism and provide better support for individuals with the disorder.

The Changing Terminology of Autism

Over the years, the terminology used to describe autism has undergone significant changes. We have come a long way from the early days of using terms like "childhood autism" to describe this condition. Back then, the diagnosis was typically made in childhood, and the symptoms were thought to be present only in children.

In the 1980s, the term "autistic disorder" was introduced, which placed autism within the larger category of "pervasive developmental disorders." This new terminology helped to expand the understanding of autism beyond childhood and into adulthood.

In 2013, the term "autism spectrum disorder" (ASD) was introduced, which encompasses a range of symptoms and severity levels. The new terminology acknowledges that autism is not a one-size-fits-all condition. It recognizes that people with autism can have a wide range of symptoms, from mild to severe.

The term "Asperger's syndrome" was also used to describe a milder form of autism. However, it was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 2013 and is now considered part of the autism spectrum. This change in terminology has helped to reduce the stigma associated with the condition and has allowed people to receive more accurate diagnoses and appropriate treatment.

The Different Types of Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism is a spectrum disorder, which means that it can manifest in many different ways and to varying degrees. While all individuals with autism share some common traits, there are several different types of autism spectrum disorder.

One type of autism spectrum disorder is classic autism, which is also known as Kanner's autism. This type of autism is characterized by significant impairments in communication and social interaction, as well as repetitive behaviors or interests.

Another type of autism spectrum disorder is Asperger syndrome, which is often referred to as high-functioning autism. Individuals with Asperger syndrome typically have milder symptoms than those with classic autism, but they still struggle with social interactions and may have highly specialized interests or routines.

Pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) is another type of autism spectrum disorder. This diagnosis is given to individuals who exhibit some symptoms of autism but do not meet the criteria for classic autism or Asperger syndrome.

Rett syndrome and childhood disintegrative disorder are two other conditions that fall under the umbrella of autism spectrum disorders. These conditions are rare and typically involve more severe symptoms than other types of ASD.

It's important to note that every individual with ASD experiences the condition differently. Some may have mild symptoms while others may have more severe impairments. Understanding the different types of ASD can help individuals receive appropriate diagnoses and treatment tailored to their specific needs.

Early Signs and Symptoms of Autism in Infants and Toddlers

While autism is typically diagnosed in childhood, there are often early signs and symptoms that can indicate the presence of the disorder. In some cases, these signs may be present in infancy or toddlerhood.

One early sign of autism is a lack of eye contact. Infants and toddlers with autism may avoid making eye contact with others or may not respond when someone tries to engage them visually.

Another early sign is a lack of response to their name. Typically developing infants and toddlers will respond when someone calls their name, but those with autism may not react at all or may only respond inconsistently.

Delayed language development is another common early sign of autism. Infants and toddlers with the disorder may not babble or coo as much as other children their age, and they may have difficulty learning new words or phrases.

Repetitive behaviors are also often present in infants and toddlers with autism. They may engage in repetitive movements such as rocking back and forth or flapping their hands, or they may become fixated on certain objects or toys.

It's important to note that these symptoms alone do not necessarily indicate the presence of autism. However, if parents or caregivers notice these signs in their child, it's important to speak with a healthcare provider about further evaluation for the disorder.

Early intervention can make a significant difference in the lives of individuals with autism, so it's important to seek help as soon as possible if there are concerns about a child's development.

Treatment Options for Autism Spectrum Disorder

While there is no cure for autism spectrum disorder (ASD), there are a variety of treatment options available to help individuals manage the symptoms of the condition and improve their quality of life. Treatment plans are often tailored to an individual's specific needs and may include a combination of therapies.

Behavioral Therapy

Behavioral therapy is one type of treatment that is commonly used for individuals with ASD. This type of therapy focuses on changing behaviors that are harmful or disruptive and reinforcing positive behaviors. Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is one type of behavioral therapy that has been shown to be effective in improving communication, socialization, and other skills in individuals with ASD.

Speech Therapy

Many individuals with ASD struggle with communication, and speech therapy can be an effective way to address this issue. Speech therapists work with individuals to improve their language skills, including vocabulary, grammar, and social language use.

Occupational Therapy

Occupational therapy can be helpful for individuals with ASD who struggle with sensory issues or motor skills. Occupational therapists work with individuals to develop strategies for managing sensory input and improving fine motor skills.


While medication is not a cure for ASD, it can be helpful in managing some of the symptoms associated with the condition. For example, medications may be prescribed to help reduce anxiety or hyperactivity.

Alternative Therapies

There are also a variety of alternative therapies that some individuals find helpful in managing their symptoms. These may include things like music therapy, art therapy, or animal-assisted therapy.

It's important to note that every individual with ASD is different, so what works for one person may not work for another. A comprehensive treatment plan should take into account an individual's unique needs and preferences in order to provide the most effective support possible.

Strategies for Supporting Individuals with Autism and Their Families in the Community

Supporting individuals with autism and their families in the community is essential to ensure that they can lead fulfilling and meaningful lives. Here are some strategies that can be employed to support individuals with autism and their families:

Education and Awareness

Education and awareness are key to creating a more inclusive community for individuals with autism. By educating others about the condition, we can break down stereotypes and reduce stigma. This can include providing information about the signs and symptoms of autism, as well as resources for supporting individuals with the disorder.

Accessible Environments

Creating accessible environments is another important strategy for supporting individuals with autism in the community. This can include making sure that public spaces are sensory-friendly, such as reducing noise levels or providing quiet areas for those who need them. It can also include making sure that buildings are physically accessible, such as providing ramps or elevators.

Support Groups

Support groups can be a valuable resource for both individuals with autism and their families. These groups provide a safe space for people to share experiences, ask questions, and receive support from others who understand what they're going through.

Sensory-Friendly Activities

Many individuals with autism struggle with sensory input, so providing sensory-friendly activities can be a great way to support them in the community. This could include things like offering quiet hours at museums or theaters, or providing sensory-friendly play areas at parks or other public spaces.

Job Training and Employment Opportunities

For many individuals with autism, finding employment can be challenging. Providing job training programs and employment opportunities specifically designed for people with autism can help them succeed in the workforce.

By implementing these strategies, we can create a more welcoming and supportive community for individuals with autism and their families. It's important to remember that everyone deserves to feel included and valued, regardless of their abilities or differences.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is autism?

Autism, or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects communication, social interaction, and behavior. It's called a "spectrum" disorder because the condition can affect individuals in a wide variety of ways and to varying degrees.

How common is autism?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 1 in 54 children in the United States have been diagnosed with ASD. The condition is more common in boys than girls.

What are some common signs and symptoms of autism?

Common signs and symptoms of autism include difficulty with social interactions, delayed language development, repetitive behaviors or routines, sensory issues, and fixated interests.

When should I be concerned about my child's development?

If you notice any significant delays in your child's development, it's important to speak with your healthcare provider. Early intervention can make a significant difference in the lives of individuals with autism, so it's important to seek help as soon as possible if there are concerns about a child's development.

How is autism diagnosed?

Autism is typically diagnosed through a combination of developmental screenings, observations, and assessments. Healthcare providers will look for specific criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) when making a diagnosis.

Is there a cure for autism?

There is no cure for autism spectrum disorder. However, there are many treatment options available that can help individuals manage their symptoms and improve their quality of life.

Can people with autism lead fulfilling lives?

Absolutely! With the right support and resources, individuals with autism can lead fulfilling and meaningful lives. It's important to continue to educate ourselves and others about autism so that we can create more inclusive communities where everyone feels valued and supported.


In conclusion, the history of autism is a complex and evolving one. From the early descriptions of "idiocy" and "mental retardation" to the emergence of the term "autism" and the changing terminology over the years, our understanding of this disorder has come a long way. Today, we recognize autism as a distinct disorder with its own unique set of symptoms, and we continue to learn more about this condition and how to best support those who are affected by it.


Continue Reading