What Is Autism?

These children seem so different, yet they have one thing in common: They were all diagnosed with autism.

A Brief History of Autism

The word autism comes from the Greek word autos, which means self. Even though autism seems like a fairly new diagnosis, some of the earliest published descriptions of behaviors that resemble autism date back to the eighteenth century. It wasn't until 1911 that Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler coined the term autism in his work with schizophrenic patients. He observed that his patients were isolated from the outside world and extremely self-absorbed.

Dr. Leo Kanner and Dr. Hans Asperger are considered the pioneers in the field of autism as we know it today. In the early 1940s, unbeknownst to each other, both men conducted research in which they described children as autistic--not in reference to schizophrenics, but to what we now know as the more classic definition of the word. Kanner's explanation is what we would consider to be the classic definition, where children display symptoms of impaired social interaction, lack of imaginative play, and verbal communication problems. Asperger described children with similar traits, except that his children seemed to have higher IQs and precocious language skills--they spoke like little adults. In the 1980s, Dr. Lorna Wing, psychiatric consultant for the National Autistic Society in the United Kingdom, coined the term Asperger's Syndrome to differentiate the condition from classic autism.

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