Autism 101: The Basics

A colorful autism awareness puzzle background with wood texture illustration.

Since April is autism awareness month, we wanted to do our part in bringing awareness.  Here are some basic facts about autism you may not already know.  

A Brief History of Autism

Swiss psychiatrist Eugene Bleuler first used the term autism in 1911 to describe a subset of his patients, who he believed to have schizophrenia.  It means ‘isolated self’ and derives from the Greek word ‘autos’ (self). 

In the 1940s, psychiatrists began to use the term to describe children with emotional or social problems or who acted withdrawn.  They originally believed the cause of autism was ‘refrigerator mothers,’ a term used to describe mothers who were not warm and loving enough to their children.  A diagnosis often brought about shame to the family and children often spent their lives in institutions.

Also during this period, Hans Asperger, a scientist in Germany, was discovering and researching what is now known as Asperger syndrome.  

Until the 1960s, autism was linked to schizophrenia.  Treatment included LSD, electroshock therapy, and behavior change techniques which usually included pain and punishment. 

Fortunately, in the 1980s & 1990s the focus shifted to behavior therapy, which was methodically administered in a study environment.  The more we learn about autism, the more we can improve on treatment methods and outcomes.  Part of that is providing a correct diagnosis.  In 2003, several separate types of autism, including Aspberger’s, were folded into one category calledautism spectrum disorder.”  

Today, the primary treatment consists of behavioral and language therapy, with other therapies introduced based on the needs of the individual. 

What is autism?

Autism is a bio-neurological disorder, which means it impacts the nervous system.  Common symptoms of autism include difficulty with social interactions, impaired ability to communicate, and repetitive behaviors.

Who has autism?

The latest CDC research indicates that 1 in 59 children are diagnosed with autism.  Males are four times as likely than females to have autism.

What causes autism?

While it’s not known for sure, research shows that a combination of factors contributes to autism, such as genetics and environmental influence.   As scientists research the causes, they are also looking into why autism seems to be increasing.   They have linked specific genetics to autism, but they have not yet determined the environmental factors that can cause it. 

Why is there an increase in autism diagnosis?

Previously, individuals from lower socio-economic standing who lacked access to health care did not receive a diagnosis.  They are starting to receive a diagnosis more frequently now, which is part of the reason for the rise in the autism rate.  There is still ongoing research on genetic and environmental influences on autism diagnosis (see: What causes autism?).  

How is autism treated? 

No two individuals with autism are the same, so there isn’t a one-size-fits-all treatment.  Early diagnosis is beneficial in helping individuals overcome some of the challenges associated with autism.  Autism Speaks organization provides an outline of some common behavioral therapies for autism.

Other autism facts

  • The early signs of autism can appear anywhere between 6 to 18 months.   
  • It’s very common for individuals with autism to have co-morbidities, such as: Fragile X, allergies, asthma, epilepsy, bowel disease, gastrointestinal/digestive disorders, persistent viral infections, Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders (PANDAS), feeding disorders, anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Tourette’s syndrome
  • One-third of individuals with autism are non-verbal.
  • Drowning is the leading cause of death of individuals with autism.
  • 11-40 % of individuals with autism have anxiety disorders.
  • 26% of adults with autism suffer from depression.

Additional Resources

Tags: Aspergers, Autism