Autism History

"In academic circles, autism is regarded as a brain disorder with a genetic basis. Yet no specific biomarker can diagnose autism"
~ Dr Stephen W. Porges

This journal considers the history of autism therapies, and examines the theories of the causes of autism.

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Join the discussion on breakthroughs in approaches to helping those on the autism spectrum, to realise their potential.


Recognition of 'special abilities' 

In the 1940’s both Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger identified autism as distinct from psychiatric illness and both of them noted ‘special abilities’ of the child.

Kanner listed thirteen specific traits relevant to autism – note what is in first place!

  1. Special abilities
  2. Not asking questions or talking too much
  3. Happiest alone and indifferent to others
  4. Not emotive
  5. Mania for spinning
  6. Destructive temper tantrums
  7. Disinclination to play with other children
  8. Shaking head from side to side
  9. Thinking and thinking, locked in his own mind
  10. Limitations of spontaneous activity
  11. Flapping, whispering, spinning stuff
  12. Words having inflexible meanings
  13. Concreteness, a need for absolutes

Austrian clinician, Hans Asperger, working independently from Kanner , also identified autism as including traits of high intelligence aligned with obsessive interests and difficulty with social interactions.

Despite their groundbreaking work , not only did It take until the 1980’s for the work of Kanner to be included in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical manual of Mental Disorders) and another decade for Asperger’s to be included; there was (and still is) something vital left out of the final diagnostics - Special abilities.

The DSM-1V notes that people with autism have deficits in three key areas.

  1. Verbal and non verbal communication
  2. Social awareness and interaction
  3. Imaginative play (variable interest and behaviours

In 2103 the DSM-5 updated itself to deficits in only two categories:

  1. Impaired social communication and /or interaction
  2. Restricted and or/repetitive behaviors

Yet at no time has there been categories in the DSM for higher functioning. The leading fathers of autism psychology both purported traits of higher intelligence, yet our psychological system does not see fit to include. Why?

We are comfortable discussing deficits in psychology, what about the supplementary, the additional capacity? It is not just those with savant characteristics, many people with autism have quite extraordinary traits that we are perhaps not yet sophisticated enough to measure.

Perhaps with the advent of The Polyvagal Theory and a new way of viewing autism, we will find a vitally different way of assessing and appreciating autism that can incorporate the human beauty as well as the shortfalls.