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Autism Research and Awareness: The History in 3 Groundbreaking Stages

There’s been a century of evolution in autism research to get to where we are today. With World Autism Awareness Day approaching, it’s helpful to reflect on how far we’ve come in recognizing and respecting autism spectrum disorder (ASD). A century ago, the word “autism” didn’t even exist. First used in 1908, “autism stems from the Greek word “autos”, meaning self.

Getting us here has been the work of many bright minds with the occasional misstep. Autism research and awareness have gone through several stages. From the murky waters of early 20th-century psychiatry, when people first tried to catalog the spectrum of human behaviors, to the better-controlled and temperate academic halls of the post-war world, progressing to encompass modern brain mapping and human genome technology, the study of this condition has grown by leaps and bounds. 

At ABA Centers of Florida, we pride ourselves on autism awareness and community, which requires understanding where we came from and how autism research is evolving. This article covers the significant developments in autism research and awareness, from a misunderstood condition to one internationally recognized and supported.

1. Early Autism Research (1910-1960)

1911: German Psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler created the concept and the word “autism” to describe severe cases of schizophrenia, another diagnostic concept he had created. His definition of autism will not endure, as he used it to describe severe infantile wishes manifested as hallucinations and a profoundly symbolic inner life in schizophrenic patients. Today, children on the spectrum are understood to struggle with symbolism.

1943: Leo Kanner, a child psychiatrist, publishes a paper titled “Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact.” He describes eleven children who have similar developmental problems, including an inability to relate to others, a preference for sameness, and language difficulties. He also pointed out that some exhibited excellent memory and academic potential. This paper is the first formal description of autism as a distinct disorder.

1944: Hans Asperger, a pediatrician, publishes a paper describing a group of children who struggle with social communication and empathy and exhibit a narrow range of interests. This condition will later be named Asperger’s syndrome.

2. Growing Understanding of the Condition (1960-1990)

The 1960s: Researchers begin to study the genetics of autism and identify a higher incidence of the disorder in families with other cases of autism or related conditions. Bruno Bettelheim, a psychologist informed by the works of Freud, claims autism is caused by cold parenting styles, blaming “refrigerator mothers” in particular.

1964: Bernard Rimland, a psychologist and parent of an autistic child, counters the claims of Bettelheim. He founds the Autism Society of America, which becomes a leading advocacy organization for people with autism.

The 1970s: Researchers focus on the role of brain structure and function in autism and begin to use brain imaging techniques to study the brains of people with autism.

1980: The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is revised and, for the first time, includes a separate diagnostic category for autism.

1987: Researchers discover a link between a gene on chromosome 15 and autism. This link is the first identified genetic factor associated with the disorder. Psychologist Ole Ivar Lovaas publishes a paper that will later inform Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), describing a therapy regimen for those on the spectrum. While the paper laid the groundwork for further studies in autism therapy, the scientific community has since discredited many of his methods.

3. Modern Awareness of Genetics and the Brain (1990-Today)

The 1990s: Research into the brain chemistry of autism leads to the discovery that some people with autism have abnormal levels of neurotransmitters, including serotonin and dopamine.

1991: The Autism Research Institute launches the Defeat Autism Now! (DAN!) the project, which advocates for a biomedical approach to treating autism, including dietary changes and nutritional supplements.

1995: The National Alliance for Autism Research is founded, eventually becoming one of the largest private organizations funding autism research.

1998: A controversial study by Andrew Wakefield is published in The Lancet, linking the MMR vaccine to autism. Wakefield is later stripped of his medical license as the study is ultimately determined fraudulent.

2000: The Human Genome Project is completed, providing researchers with a complete map of the human genome and opening new avenues for genetic research into autism.

2002: The Autism Genetic Resource Exchange is established, providing researchers with access to DNA samples from families with multiple cases of autism.

2006: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) begins tracking the prevalence of autism in the United States and reports a significant increase in cases over the past decade.

2007: Researchers discover that mutations in a gene called SHANK3 are associated with autism. This study is the first to identify a gene mutation linked explicitly to autism. World Autism Awareness Day is established by unanimous vote in the United Nations. It is one of only seven health-related United Nations celebrations.

2010: The Combating Autism Act is signed into law, providing funds for autism research and treatment.

2012: The DSM-5 is released, consolidating several previously separate diagnoses into a single category of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

2013: Researchers report that children with autism have different patterns of brain connectivity compared to typically developing children, which may explain some of the differences in social and communication skills.

2015: Researchers identify several new genes associated with autism, including CHD8, SCN2A, and CHD2.

2018: The CDC reports that the prevalence of autism in the United States has increased to 1 in 59 children.

2021: The number of children diagnosed with autism rises. Per CDC statistics, it is now 1 in 44.

2022: A study by UCLA reveals that brain changes in autism are more sweeping than previously thought, with significant differences in every region analyzed. The most extensive changes were in the region that process pain, vision, and temperature, which explains hypersensitivity to outside stimuli.

ABA Centers of Florida and Autism

We believe every child on the spectrum fully deserves dignity, independence, and happiness. Our team of broad certified therapists is devoted to ensuring your child has the skills to handle any situation they may face.

We specialize in ABA Therapy, the gold standard for autism therapy and the only one recognized by the FDA. Through individualized plans, positive reinforcement, play therapy, and other innovative methods, your child will grow in surprising ways and learn healthy habits to maneuver better in the world.

You can reach us for a consultation by calling (772) 773-1437 or on our website to start your ABA journey.

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