History of Autism
From the early 1900s, autism has referred to a range of neuro-psychological conditions. But where did the term come from, and how has knowledge about autism changed? Read on to learn about the history and the current understanding of this challenging condition.
Where Did the Term "Autism" Come From?
The word "autism" comes from the Greek word "autos," which means "self." It describes conditions in which a person is removed from social interaction. In other words, they become an “isolated self.”
In the 1940s, researchers in the United States began to use “autism” to describe children with emotional or social problems. Leo Kanner, a doctor from Johns Hopkins University, used it to describe the withdrawn behavior of several children he studied. At about the same time, Hans Asperger, a scientist in Germany, identified a similar condition that’s now called Asperger’s syndrome.
Autism and schizophrenia remained linked in many researchers’ minds until the 1960s. It was only then that medical professionals began to have a separate understanding of autism in children.
During the 1980s and 1990s, the role of behavioral therapy and the use of highly controlled learning environments emerged as the primary treatments for many forms of autism and related conditions. Currently, the cornerstones of autism therapy are behavioral therapy and language therapy. Other treatments are added as needed.
What Are the Symptoms of Autism?
One symptom common to all types of autism is an inability to easily communicate and interact with others and the environment. In fact, some people with autism are unable to communicate at all. Others may have difficulty interpreting body language, also called non-verbal communication, or holding a conversation.
Other symptoms linked to autism may include unusual behaviors in any of these areas:
- Interest in objects or specialized information
- Reactions to sensations
- Physical coordination
These symptoms are usually seen early in development. Most children with severe autism are diagnosed by age 2.
What Are the Types of Autism?
Over time, psychiatrists have developed a systematic way of describing autism and related conditions. All of these conditions are placed within a group of conditions called Autism Spectrum Disorders. Depending on how severe symptoms are, they are classified under level 1, 2 or 3. Pervasive Development Disorder was used as a term before but now is no longer used. If a child was called PDD before, their diagnosis would be ASD under the new criteria.
What Causes Autism?
Autism runs in families. The underlying causes, however, are unknown. Most researchers agree that the causes are likely to be genetic, metabolic or bio-chemical, and neurological. Others also believe that environmental factors may be involved.
How Is Autism Treated?
Treatments for autism vary depending on the needs of the individual. In general, treatments fall into four categories:
- Behavioral and communication therapy
- Medical and dietary therapy
- Occupational and physical therapy
- Complementary therapy (music or art therapy, for example)
What Are Behavioral and Communication Therapies for Autism?
The primary treatment for autism includes programs that address several key areas. Those areas are behavior, communication, sensory integration, and social skill development. Addressing these areas requires close coordination between parents, teachers, special education professionals, and mental healthprofessionals.
How Do Medical and Dietary Therapies Treat Autism?
The goal of medication is to make it easier for the person with autism to participate in activities such as learning and behavioral therapy. Drugs used to treat anxiety, attention problems, depression, hyperactivity, sleep difficulties, and impulsivity may be recommended. These do not “cure" autism (there are no cures yet), but they can treat underlying dysfunctional symptoms that get in the individual’s way of learning and growing.
There is some evidence that people with autism may have certain deficiencies in vitamins and minerals. These deficiencies don't cause autism Spectrum disorder. Supplements, though, may be recommended to improve nutrition. Vitamin B and magnesium are two of the most frequent supplements used for people with autism. However, one can overdose on these vitamins, so mega-vitamins should be avoided.
How Are Complementary Therapies Used to Treat Autism?
These treatments may help increase learning and communications skills in some people with autism. Complementary therapies include music, art, or animal therapy, such as horseback riding or swimming with dolphins.
Future Research and Treatment of Autism
Researchers, health professionals, parents, and people with ASD all have strong opinions about the direction future autism research should take. Everyone would like to find why autism occurs. However, many feel that finding a cure is unlikely. Instead, scarce resources should be devoted toward research and supporting those with autism and helping their families find better ways to live with the condition.
No matter what the view toward the future, many techniques and treatments exist now that can help relieve the pain and suffering of autism. These treatments offer many options for improving quality of life of people with autism.