Why Were Cases of Autism So Hard to Find Before the 1990s?

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In March 2015, Steve Silberman asked the question, “Why were cases of autism so hard to find before the 1990s?” Silberman notes that autism doesn’t follow the normal trajectory for a condition or diagnosis. Instead, he says, he learned about it from the process of storytelling.

Silberman’s new book, NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, comes out in August. The book focuses on Leo Kanner, a psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins in the 1940s. Kanner published a group of case studies for 11 boys that had specific characteristics, including flapping and anxiety when there was a change in routine. In his notes, Kanner laid out the classification for ASD. He decided that epilepsy, which is common in autistic people, was not required for an autism diagnosis.

In Silberman’s TED talk, he says that the increase is due to people steering away from Kanner’s assertion that autism is rare. Instead, he compares it to an epidemic like something someone could “catch from another kid at Disneyland.”

Silberman also outlines the history of autism. He says that Kanner not only thought it was rare, but that he attributed the cause of the condition to a child’s parents.

Finally, Silberman looks to others in his book to answer the question. He discusses the other research done by people such Lona Wing, Andrew Wakefield, and finally, Hans Asperger. In a surprising end, it was Asperger who said that the “cure” for the worst symptoms of autism is in understanding teachers, accommodating employers, supportive communities, and parents who believe in their children’s full potential.

Written By Sejal Sheth

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