Pioneers of Autism

Throughout history, many people have contributed to the understanding of autism and how it is and was perceived. Some of them, had ideas that have since been proven incorrect but all of them did contribute to getting autism mainstream attention.

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Dr. Eugen BleulerThe term autism first was used by psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler in 1908. He used it to describe a schizophrenic patient who had withdrawn into his own world. The Greek word ”autós” meant self and the word “autism” was used by Bleuler to mean morbid self-admiration and withdrawal within self.

Dr. Hans AspergerHans Asperger was the Austrian pediatrician after whom Asperger’s Syndrome is named.

Born in Vienna, Asperger published the first definition of Asperger’s Syndrome in 1944 when he identified a pattern of behavior and abilities that he called “autistic psychopathy,” meaning autism – self and psychopathy – personality. The pattern included “a lack of empathy, little ability to form friendships, one-sided conversation, intense absorption in a special interest and clumsy movements.” Asperger called children with AS “little professors,” because of their ability to talk about their favorite subject in great detail.He was convinced that many would use their special talents in adulthood.

Hans Asperger’s positive outlook contrasts strikingly with Leo Kanner’s description of autism although both men were essentially described the same condition.

Dr. Leo KannerDr Leo Kanner was the first to use autism in its modern sense in English when he introduced the label early infantile autism in a 1943 report.

Almost all the characteristics described in Kanner’s first paper on the subject, notably “autistic aloneness” and “insistence on sameness”, are still regarded as typical of the autistic spectrum of disorders.

Kanner’s theory of autism was that maternal deprivation resulted in autism as an infant’s response to “refrigerator mothers”.

This theory was embraced by the medical establishment and went largely unchallenged unfortunately into the mid-1960s, but its effects have lingered into the 21st century.

Dr. Bernard RimlandDr Bernard Rimland was a psychologist and parent of a child with autism. He disagreed with Kanner. He did not agree that the cause of his son’s autism was due to either his or his wife’s parenting skills.

In 1964, he published Infantile Autism, a landmark book that argued autism had biochemical roots and upended the then conventional wisdom that it was a child’s response to ‘refrigerator mothers” who didn’t show adequate affection.

In 1965, he founded the National Society for Autistic Children in Teaneck, New Jersey, later renamed the Autism Society of America. In 1967, Rimland helped to create the Autism Research Institute in San Diego, California.

Dr Rimland also published several articles on autistic savants and worked as the technical consultant for the 1988 movie Rain Man. The movie won Best Picture and actor Dustin Hoffman received an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his portrayal of Raymond, an adult with autism.

Dr. Ivar LovaasDr Ivar Lovaas was the first to suggest that with the right instruction, some autistic children could catch up to their peers and function in typical classrooms.

Dr. Lovaas, took a behaviorist approach, proposing these children could be taught using a rigorous one-on-one program of behavior modification.

The Lovaas model emphasized intensive repetition: the autistic child worked 35 to 40 hours a week with a trained provider. It stressed early intervention, with therapy starting before 3 ½ years. It used a system of rewards and punishments to reinforce appropriate behaviors and discourage inappropriate ones. Social skills were broken down into small sequential steps.

Early on, to deter unwanted behaviors, his researchers might slap the children or administer electric shocks.

Today, the model known as ABA uses only positive reinforcements, like food, affection and tickling, to reward appropriate behaviors.