Blonde-haired, blue-eyed Samantha, age three, was a bundle of energy -- always racing aimlessly around the house and flapping her hands. She had an uncanny habit of echoing people's language -- using the exact same words and intonation -- and could recite entire passages from a Disney video after having seen it only once.
At age two, Jake, who used to be messy and throw his toys around like most kids his age, was now lining up his trains in perfectly neat rows. He would often take a train, lie down on his belly, and push the train on an imaginary three-inch track, his eyes carefully following the wheels of the train. He could entertain himself in this manner for hours.
These children seem so different, yet they have one thing in common: They were all diagnosed with autism.
A Brief History of Autism
The word autism comes from the Greek word autos, which means self. Even though autism seems like a fairly new diagnosis, some of the earliest published descriptions of behaviors that resemble autism date back to the eighteenth century. It wasn't until 1911 that Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler coined the term autism in his work with schizophrenic patients. He observed that his patients were isolated from the outside world and extremely self-absorbed.
Dr. Leo Kanner and Dr. Hans Asperger are considered the pioneers in the field of autism as we know it today. In the early 1940s, unbeknownst to each other, both men conducted research in which they described children as autistic -- not in reference to schizophrenics, but to what we now know as the more classic definition of the word. Kanner conducted his research on children in the United States, Asperger in Austria. It's a remarkable coincidence that these studies happened to occur at the same time in different parts of the world, and that both researchers used the word autistic to describe the children in their studies.
Kanner's definition of autism was referred to as early infantile autism or childhood autism. Now we just use the word autism. Kanner's explanation is what we would consider to be the classic definition, where children display symptoms of impaired social interaction, lack of imaginative play, and verbal communication problems. Asperger described children with similar traits, except that his children seemed to have higher IQs and precocious language skills -- they spoke like little adults. In the 1980s, Dr. Lorna Wing, psychiatric consultant for the National Autistic Society in the United Kingdom, coined the term Asperger's Syndrome to differentiate the condition from classic autism.
What Does Autism Mean Today?
The word autism is the catch-all term that many people use when referring to the spectrum of autistic disorders. The more current term for autism is ASDs, or Autism Spectrum Disorders, and includes the following five diagnoses: Autistic Disorder, Asperger's Disorder, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder (CDD), Rett's Disorder, and PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder- Not Otherwise Specified).