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The Evolution of the Autism Diagnosis
Evolution of Autism

With modern medicine and copious amounts of research, our understanding of the autism spectrum is ever-evolving. With all that information at your fingertips, how do you come to understand what an autism diagnosis truly entails? In this post, we’ll discuss the evolution of the autism diagnosis and what it can mean today.

Autism as a Psychiatric Condition

In its earliest form, autism was described as a form of schizophrenia caused by cold parenting and defined by intense loneliness and lack of effective verbal communication. This definition was made popular by the psychiatrist Leo Kanner in 1943. The most important differentiation with Kanner’s understanding of autism is that it was considered a syndrome that caused a deep emotional disturbance, and not one that necessarily affected cognition.

The second version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-II) went on to interpret Kanner’s understanding of autism as a form of childhood schizophrenia characterized by a separation from reality that impeded social communication and understanding.

Autism as a Developmental Disorder

In the 60s and 70s, researcher’s understanding of autism evolved beyond the “refrigerator mother” concept that autism was caused by cold parenting. Instead, the third edition of the DSM, published in 1980, revealed that autism had a biological basis that affected the brain and development. The DSM-III also categorized autism as a condition distinct from childhood schizophrenia. 

This new definition put forth by the DSM-III listed specific categories for what a child must display to be diagnosed with autism. It specified that those with autism must display a lack of interest in people, severe inability to communicate, and extreme or irrational reactions to their environment. However, this definition was heavily edited just 7 years later, adding a more mild diagnosis and paving the way for our modern understanding of autism as a wide spectrum of conditions.

Autism as a Spectrum

The DSM-IV was the first edition of the DSM to describe autism as a spectrum. It listed 5 distinct conditions as part of this spectrum, adding Asperger’s disorder, childhood disintegrative disorder, and Rett’s syndrome to create a spectrum of mild and more severe disorders and symptoms. The distinction between the conditions gave better insight into how clinicians might treat and diagnose each one. 

With the growing body of research in the early 2000s and 2010s, the DSM-V introduced what is more consistent with our understanding of autism today. This newest edition of the DSM also introduced “Autism Spectrum Disorder” (ASD) that was defined by “persistent impairment in reciprocal social communication and social interaction” and “restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior,” that would appear in early childhood.

With today’s autism diagnosis, there is an understanding that the spectrum is defined by a variety of conditions and symptoms that an individual with autism can experience. This has created a more holistic approach to treatment in clinicians and professionals who specialize in behavioral therapies like Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). Our understanding of the diagnosis today also promotes individualism in people on the spectrum who otherwise felt defined by their symptoms.

Looking Ahead at The Autism Diagnosis

As research continues, there’s no telling what exactly the next “official definition” of  autism will include but as acceptance, awareness and understanding grow and evolve, so will our conception of autism and those who experience it every day.
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October 30, 2019

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