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Increase in diagnoses of autism

There has been an explosion worldwide in reported cases of autism over the last ten years, which is largely reminiscent of increases in the diagnosis of schizophrenia and multiple personality disorder in the twentieth century. This has brought rise to a number of different theories as to the nature of the sudden increase.

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The word autism was first used in the English language by Swiss psychiatrist Eugene Bleuler in a 1912 issue of the American Journal of Insanity. It comes from the Greek word for "self". Bleuler used it to describe the schizophrenic's seeming difficulty in connecting with other people.

However, the classification of autism did not occur until the middle of the twentieth century, when in 1943 psychiatrist Dr. Leo Kanner of the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore reported on 11 child patients with striking behavioral similarities, and introduced the label early infantile autism. He suggested "autism" from the Greek αυτος (autos), meaning "self", to describe the fact that the children seemed to lack interest in other people. Although Kanner's first paper on the subject was published in a now defunct journal, The Nervous Child, almost every characteristic he originally described is still regarded as typical of the autistic spectrum of disorders.

At the same time an Austrian scientist, Dr. Hans Asperger, made similar observations, although his name has since become attached to a different, "higher-functioning", form of autism known as Asperger's syndrome. However, widespread recognition of Asperger's work was delayed by World War II in Germany, and by the fact that his seminal paper wasn't translated into English for almost 50 years. The majority of his work wasn't widely read until 1997.

These two conditions are today listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders DSM-IV-TR (fourth edition, text revision 1) as two of the five pervasive developmental disorders (PDD), more often referred to today as autism spectrum disorders (ASD). All of these conditions are characterized by varying degrees of difference in communication skills, social interactions, and restricted, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior.

Few clinicians today use only the DSM-IV criteria, which are based on the absence or delay of certain developmental milestones, to diagnose autism.

Dr. Hans Asperger described a form of autism in the 1940s that later became known as Asperger's syndrome.


Dr. Leo Kanner introduced the label early infantile autism in 1943.


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