History of Autism: When Was Autism First Diagnosed?

While the awareness of autism has grown in recent years, the history of autism actually goes back much further than most people realize. In this article, we will take a look at the history of autism and when it was first diagnosed.

reuben kesherim
Ruben Kesherim
April 17, 2023

History of Autism

Autism is a complex developmental disorder that affects the way a person communicates and interacts with others.

The term "autism" itself was first used by Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler in 1911. Bleuler used the term to describe a symptom of schizophrenia, which he believed was a form of self-absorption. However, it was not until the 1940s that autism was recognized as a separate condition.

In 1943, a child psychiatrist named Leo Kanner wrote a paper describing a group of children who he believed had a unique condition that he called "early infantile autism."


Kanner's paper described a group of children who had trouble communicating, lacked social skills, and engaged in repetitive behaviors. He believed that this condition was not caused by bad parenting, as was commonly believed at the time, but rather by a neurological disorder.

Around the same time, another psychiatrist named Hans Asperger was also studying a group of children who had similar characteristics. Asperger described his patients as having "autistic psychopathy," and his work was published in German in 1944.

Asperger's work was not widely known outside of German-speaking countries until much later, but his description of the condition that would come to be known as Asperger's Syndrome is still widely recognized today.

In the years that followed, researchers and medical professionals continued to study autism and refine their understanding of the condition.

In the 1960s, researchers began to differentiate between "classic" autism and other forms of the disorder, such as Asperger's Syndrome and Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS).

Today, autism is recognized as a spectrum disorder, meaning that the severity of symptoms can vary widely from person to person. While there is still much to be learned about autism, there have been significant advancements made in our understanding of the condition since it was first described by Kanner and Asperger.

The Evolution of Diagnostic Criteria for Autism

The diagnostic criteria for autism have changed significantly over time. In the early days of autism research, there was little consensus on what constituted the disorder, and diagnosis was often based on a combination of behavioral observations and clinical judgment.

In the 1980s, the diagnostic criteria for autism were standardized with the publication of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III). This manual established a set of specific criteria for diagnosing autism and helped to ensure that diagnoses were consistent across different practitioners.

Since then, there have been several revisions to the DSM, each with its own changes to the diagnostic criteria for autism.

These changes reflect advances in our understanding of the disorder and attempts to better capture its complexity and variability.

One significant change came with the publication of DSM-IV in 1994. This edition introduced the concept of Asperger's Syndrome as a distinct condition within the autism spectrum.

Previously, individuals who would now be diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome were often diagnosed with high-functioning autism or simply not diagnosed at all.

The most recent version of the DSM, DSM-5, was published in 2013. This edition made several changes to the diagnostic criteria for autism, including collapsing several previously separate diagnoses into a single category: Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Today, diagnosis is typically based on a comprehensive evaluation that includes observation of behavior and communication skills, assessment of social interactions, and consideration of medical history.

While there is still much to learn about autism diagnosis and treatment, advances in our understanding have led to more accurate diagnoses and improved outcomes for those with ASD.


When were the first cases of autism recorded?

The first documented case of autism was recorded in 1799 by French physician Jean Itard. He described a young boy named Victor who had difficulty communicating and displayed repetitive behaviors.

How did people view autism in the past?

In the past, people viewed autism as a result of bad parenting or a lack of affection. This belief persisted until the 1960s when researchers began to recognize that autism was caused by neurological differences.

Who were some other notable figures in the history of autism research?

Bernard Rimland, an American psychologist, played a significant role in changing public perception about the causes of autism. In 1964, he founded the Autism Society of America and advocated for more research into the condition.

When was autism recognized as a developmental disorder?

While the term "autism" was first used by Eugen Bleuler in 1911, it was not until the 1940s that autism was recognized as a distinct developmental disorder.

Leo Kanner's paper in 1943 describing a group of children with "early infantile autism" and Hans Asperger's work in 1944 on "autistic psychopathy" were instrumental in this recognition. Prior to this, autism symptoms were often attributed to bad parenting or a lack of affection.

Today, autism is recognized as a spectrum disorder with varying degrees of severity and is understood to be caused by neurological differences.

When was autism first presented as a spectrum of conditions?

It wasn't until the 1980s that autism was recognized as a spectrum of conditions. Before this, autism was considered a singular disorder with a set of specific symptoms.

However, researchers in the field began to recognize that there were variations in symptom severity and presentation, leading to the development of the autism spectrum.

The concept of the spectrum allowed for a more nuanced understanding of autism and recognition that each person's experience with the disorder is unique.

Today, the spectrum includes classic autism, Asperger's Syndrome, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS), among others.

How has our understanding of autism changed over time?

Our understanding of autism has evolved significantly since it was first described by Kanner and Asperger. Today, we recognize that it is a spectrum disorder with varying degrees of severity. We also now understand that it is caused by neurological differences and not bad parenting or personal choice.

Was there a time when nobody had autism?

It is difficult to say whether there was a time when nobody had autism, as the condition has likely existed for as long as humans have.

However, it is possible that autism was not recognized or understood in the same way that it is today. In the past, people with autism may have been seen as simply "odd" or "eccentric," and their behaviors may not have been recognized as symptoms of a neurological disorder.

Additionally, without modern diagnostic tools and criteria, it is possible that many people with autism went undiagnosed in the past.


In conclusion, the history of autism dates back over a century, with the term being first used in 1911 by Eugen Bleuler. However, it was not until Leo Kanner's 1943 paper that autism was recognized as a separate condition.

Since then, researchers and medical professionals have made great strides in their understanding of autism and its many different forms.

Today, autism is recognized as a spectrum disorder, and while there is still much to be learned, there is hope that continued research will lead to new treatments and better outcomes for those living with autism.

steven zauderer

CEO of CrossRiverTherapy - a national ABA therapy company based in the USA.

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