Autism: A Short, Turbulent History


1911 › Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler coins the word autism to describe a tendency among some schizophrenics to wall off reality in favor of an inner fantasy life.

1944 › Johns Hopkins psychiatrist Leo Kanner defines autism as a childhood disorder marked by a “desire for sameness” and a “profound aloneness which dominates all behavior.”

Vienna psychiatrist Hans Asperger publishes a paper on a mental disturbance that leads to social isolation, poor body control, and occasionally intellectual brilliance.

1956 › University of Chicago’s Bruno Bettelheim launches a 12-year study that culminates in The Empty Fortress, a best-seller blaming the unfeeling “refrigerator mother” as a major cause of autism.

1963 › UCLA psychologist Ivar Lovaas begins clinical research on applied behavior analysis, a program of positive and negative reinforcement—initially including slapping—to steer kids with autism toward socially acceptable behavior.

1964 › Bernard Rimland, a San Diego research psychologist, posits a neurological basis for autism.

1973 › California’s Lanterman Mental Retardation Services Act is broadened to guarantee basic rights and state-funded services for people with other neurological disabilities, including autism.

1992 › Psychiatrist Stanley Greenspan pioneers “floortime play therapy,” an alternative to applied behavior analysis that “follows the child’s lead” and brings him into a “shared world.”

1994 › The American Psychiatric Association formally recognizes Asperger’s syndrome.

2005 › After their grandson is diagnosed, NBC/Universal chairman Bob Wright and wife Suzanne establish Autism Speaks, now the dominant autism nonprofit. 

2009 › UC Davis researchers conclude that California’s fourfold increase in autism cases from 1990 to  2000 can’t be explained by diagnostic advances. They urge further study of the role toxic chemicals and microbial infections may play in the neurodevelopment of children.

Eugen Bleuler, photograph courtesy