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What Was Autism Called Before It Was Called Autism?

Delve into the evolution of understanding, terminology, and the stories of individuals on the spectrum. Explore the compassionate journey of how we've come to recognize and embrace neurodiversity, shedding light on the journey before autism became the term we know today.

mark elias
Mark Elias
December 24, 2023

Understanding Autism

To fully comprehend the evolution of autism terminology, it is essential to first understand what autism is and recognize the importance of terminology in the autism community.

What is Autism?

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects social interaction, communication, and behavior. It is characterized by a broad range of symptoms and strengths that vary from person to person. Individuals with autism may experience challenges in social interactions, repetitive behaviors, sensory sensitivities, and difficulties with verbal and nonverbal communication.

Autism is not a disease or a condition that can be cured. Instead, it is a lifelong neurological difference that shapes an individual's experiences and perspectives. It is important to approach autism with empathy, understanding, and acceptance, recognizing that every person with autism is unique.

Free A Word Autism Spelled With Letter Blocks on a White Surface Stock Photo

Importance of Terminology in Autism

Terminology plays a crucial role in how we perceive and understand autism. It reflects the prevailing attitudes, knowledge, and societal norms of a particular time. The evolution of autism terminology reflects the shifting understanding of autism as a spectrum of disorders and the recognition of the importance of person-centered language.

As language evolves, it is important to use terminology that respects and empowers individuals with autism. The words we choose can impact how individuals with autism and their families perceive themselves and how they are perceived by society. Person-centered language emphasizes the individual first, focusing on their humanity rather than defining them solely by their diagnosis.

By using inclusive and respectful language, we foster a culture of acceptance and understanding, promoting the well-being and dignity of individuals on the autism spectrum. It is essential to keep the conversation around autism evolving, ensuring that our terminology reflects the current research, knowledge, and lived experiences of individuals with autism.

By exploring the history and evolution of autism terminology, we gain insight into the ever-changing understanding of autism and how language plays a vital role in promoting inclusivity and respect.

Early Descriptions of Autism

The understanding of autism has evolved over time, and the terminology used to describe it has also undergone significant changes. In this section, we will explore the early descriptions of autism provided by Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger, which laid the foundation for our understanding of this complex condition.

Leo Kanner and 'Early Infantile Autism'

In 1943, Leo Kanner, an Austrian-American psychiatrist, published a groundbreaking paper introducing the concept of 'Early Infantile Autism.' Kanner observed a group of children who exhibited similar patterns of behavior characterized by social withdrawal, communication difficulties, and repetitive behaviors.

Kanner's description of 'Early Infantile Autism' emphasized the early onset of symptoms, generally within the first three years of life. He highlighted the significant impairments in social interaction, language development, and the presence of repetitive behaviors in these children. Kanner's work marked a significant milestone in the recognition and understanding of autism as a distinct condition.

Hans Asperger and 'Autistic Psychopathy'

Around the same time, in the 1940s, Hans Asperger, an Austrian pediatrician, independently described a group of children who displayed similar characteristics to those described by Kanner. Asperger referred to this condition as 'Autistic Psychopathy.'

Asperger's observations focused on children who exhibited social and communication difficulties, along with intense interests and rigid behavior patterns. He noted that these individuals often had average to above-average intelligence, leading him to describe the condition as a 'high-functioning' form of autism.

While Kanner's and Asperger's descriptions differed in some aspects, both contributed significantly to our understanding of autism as a distinct neurodevelopmental condition. Asperger's work was not widely recognized until many years later.

The early descriptions of autism by Kanner and Asperger set the stage for further research and understanding of this complex condition. The subsequent shifts in terminology and the consolidation of autism under the umbrella of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) reflect the ongoing efforts to refine our understanding and provide more inclusive language to describe the diverse experiences of individuals on the spectrum.

Shifts in Terminology

As our understanding of autism has evolved over time, so too has the terminology used to describe and diagnose the condition. In this section, we will explore two significant shifts in autism terminology: the rise of 'Pervasive Developmental Disorders' and the introduction of 'Autistic Disorder' in the DSM-III.

The Rise of 'Pervasive Developmental Disorders'

Before the DSM-III (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Third Edition) was published in 1980, the term 'autism' was not widely used. Instead, a broader category known as 'Pervasive Developmental Disorders' (PDD) was introduced to encompass a range of developmental conditions, including autism.

The term 'Pervasive Developmental Disorders' acknowledged that these conditions affected multiple areas of development, including social interaction, communication, and behavior. Within the PDD category, several distinct diagnoses were recognized, such as 'Childhood Onset PDD', 'Atypical PDD', and 'Childhood Disintegrative Disorder'. These diagnoses were used to describe individuals who exhibited symptoms similar to autism but did not meet the specific criteria for an autism diagnosis.

DSM-III and the Introduction of 'Autistic Disorder'

With the publication of the DSM-III in 1980, the term 'Autistic Disorder' was officially introduced as a distinct diagnosis. This marked a significant shift in autism terminology and recognition of autism as a separate condition within the broader category of Pervasive Developmental Disorders.

The introduction of 'Autistic Disorder' in the DSM-III provided specific diagnostic criteria for clinicians to identify individuals with autism. The criteria included persistent deficits in social interaction, communication challenges, and restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior. This new diagnostic framework aimed to provide a more standardized and accurate understanding of autism.

The establishment of 'Autistic Disorder' as a distinct diagnosis helped to differentiate autism from other developmental conditions and increased awareness of the unique characteristics and challenges associated with the condition. It also laid the foundation for further research, leading to a deeper understanding of autism and subsequent revisions in diagnostic criteria.

Understanding the shifts in autism terminology is crucial for grasping the historical context and development of our knowledge about autism. By recognizing the changes in terminology over time, we can appreciate the progress made in diagnosing and understanding autism spectrum disorders.

The Spectrum Concept

The understanding of autism has evolved over the years, leading to significant changes in how it is conceptualized and diagnosed. One of the most notable shifts in autism terminology occurred with the introduction of the spectrum concept. This section will explore how the spectrum concept emerged and its impact on the diagnostic criteria for autism.

DSM-IV and the Spectrum of Disorders

In 1994, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV), was published, introducing the concept of the autism spectrum. The DSM-IV recognized that autism exists on a spectrum, encompassing a range of related developmental disorders. This acknowledgment reflected the understanding that individuals with autism could have varying degrees of impairment and different patterns of symptoms.

The DSM-IV outlined several pervasive developmental disorders (PDD) that fell within the autism spectrum, including:

Disorder and Description

  • Autistic Disorder: Marked by significant social, communication, and behavioral challenges.
  • Asperger's Disorder: Characterized by difficulties with social interaction and restrictive interests, without significant language delays or intellectual disability.
  • Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS): Used for individuals who exhibited some but not all of the criteria for Autistic Disorder or Asperger's Disorder.

The introduction of the spectrum concept in the DSM-IV was a significant step towards recognizing the diversity of autism and acknowledging the different ways it manifests in individuals. It allowed for a more comprehensive understanding of the condition and provided a framework for diagnosis and support.

DSM-5 and the Consolidation of Autism Spectrum Disorder

In 2013, the DSM-5 was published, bringing further changes to the diagnostic criteria for autism. One of the most notable changes was the consolidation of the various pervasive developmental disorders into a single diagnostic category called Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

The DSM-5 recognized that the previous diagnostic categories, such as Autistic Disorder, Asperger's Disorder, and PDD-NOS, were not consistently applied and could lead to confusion. By consolidating these categories into ASD, the DSM-5 aimed to provide a more unified and accurate diagnosis for individuals on the autism spectrum.

Under the DSM-5, ASD is defined by two core domains:

  • Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction.
  • Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities.

The severity of these domains is measured on a continuum, allowing for a more nuanced understanding of an individual's autism profile. Additionally, the DSM-5 introduced specifiers to further describe an individual's profile, such as level of support required and associated features.

The consolidation of autism into ASD in the DSM-5 reflected a growing recognition that autism is a diverse condition with a wide range of characteristics and needs. This shift aimed to promote a more holistic understanding of autism while facilitating more accurate diagnosis and appropriate support for individuals on the spectrum.

As our understanding of autism continues to evolve, it is essential to stay informed about the latest developments and terminology. The spectrum concept introduced in the DSM-IV and further consolidated in the DSM-5 has played a significant role in shaping our understanding of autism as a heterogeneous condition.

Person-First Language and Identity-First Language

In the discussion surrounding autism, the choice of language used to describe individuals with autism has evolved over time. Two approaches commonly used are person-first language and identity-first language. Both approaches aim to foster respect and promote understanding, but they differ in how they prioritize the identity of individuals with autism.

Person-First Language

Person-first language emphasizes the individuality and personhood of individuals with autism. It places the person before the disability, focusing on their humanity rather than defining them solely by their condition. For example, instead of saying "autistic person," person-first language would advocate for saying "person with autism."

The use of person-first language is based on the belief that every individual should be seen and recognized as a whole person, with their abilities and strengths considered alongside their challenges. It aims to promote respect and reduce the potential for stigmatization by emphasizing the individual's identity beyond their diagnosis.

Identity-First Language

Identity-first language, on the other hand, prioritizes the identity of individuals with autism and acknowledges autism as an integral part of who they are. Instead of separating the person from their condition, identity-first language recognizes and validates the experiences and perspectives of individuals with autism. For example, it would use the term "autistic person" to acknowledge the significance of autism in shaping the individual's identity.

Advocates of identity-first language argue that autism is not merely a diagnosis but a fundamental aspect of a person's neurodivergent identity. It embraces the idea that autism is not something to be separated from an individual's identity but an intrinsic part of who they are.

The choice between person-first language and identity-first language is a matter of personal preference and individual identity. Some individuals with autism prefer person-first language, while others embrace identity-first language. It's essential to respect individuals' choices and preferences regarding how they wish to be referred to.

The evolving conversation around autism terminology reflects the broader societal shift towards inclusivity and understanding. As we continue to learn and grow in our understanding of autism, it is crucial to use language that promotes respect, acceptance, and a deeper appreciation for the diverse experiences and identities of individuals on the autism spectrum.

The Evolving Conversation

As our understanding of autism continues to evolve, so does the conversation surrounding autism terminology. Ongoing research and increased awareness have led to significant advancements in how we refer to and perceive individuals on the autism spectrum. In this section, we will explore the continuing research and understanding in the field of autism, as well as the importance of inclusive language.

Continuing Research and Understanding

Researchers and professionals in the field of autism are constantly working to deepen our understanding of this complex condition. Through ongoing research studies, we are continuously learning more about the diverse experiences and needs of individuals on the autism spectrum. This research helps to shape our understanding of autism and informs the development of more effective interventions and support strategies.

The evolving conversation around autism terminology is driven by the insights gained from these research efforts. As we gain a deeper understanding of the spectrum of behaviors, strengths, and challenges associated with autism, our language and terminology must adapt to reflect this growing knowledge. By staying informed about the latest research findings, we can contribute to a more accurate and respectful discourse surrounding autism.

The Importance of Inclusive Language

Inclusive language plays a crucial role in promoting acceptance and understanding of individuals on the autism spectrum. It recognizes the unique identities and experiences of individuals with autism and helps to foster a more inclusive society. Using appropriate and respectful language is essential in creating an environment that embraces neurodiversity.

Person-First Language (PFL) and Identity-First Language (IFL) are two approaches commonly used in autism discourse. Person-First Language emphasizes the person before their diagnosis, prioritizing the individual over the condition. For example, "a person with autism" is an example of PFL. On the other hand, Identity-First Language emphasizes the condition as an integral part of an individual's identity. For example, "an autistic person" is an example of IFL.

There is no universally preferred language choice, as preferences may vary among individuals. Some individuals may prefer PFL, while others may identify strongly with IFL. Respecting an individual's preference for how they wish to be referred to is essential in promoting person-centered care and respecting their autonomy. It is always best to ask individuals how they prefer to be described and use the language that they feel most comfortable with.

As the conversation around autism terminology continues to evolve, it is important to remain open to new information and insights. By embracing inclusive language and staying informed about the latest research, we can contribute to a more respectful and inclusive society for individuals on the autism spectrum.


In wrapping up our journey into the past, it's fascinating to see how the way we describe and understand autism has evolved. Before it was called autism, it carried different names, reflecting our evolving comprehension of this unique spectrum.

As we look back, it's not just about changing labels; it's about the individuals whose experiences have shaped our understanding. This journey reminds us of the resilience and diversity within the autism community, highlighting the importance of recognizing and embracing neurodiversity.

So, let's carry this awareness forward with empathy, understanding, and a commitment to creating a world that appreciates the unique stories of every individual, regardless of the terms used to describe their experiences. In this ongoing narrative, the human element is what truly matters.