An autism 'revolution' in the history of child development

February 16, 2017
An autism ‘revolution’ in the history of child development
Mental Deficiency Institution c. 1956

What is autism and how did we come to understand it as a spectrum? A new book by QMUL researcher Dr Bonnie Evans uncovers the social history of autism, how it has come to define so many lives, and why its meaning was transformed in modern Britain.

Drawing from unpublished documents and never-before-seen hospital case records and government papers, Dr Evans takes the reader on a journey from the ill-managed wards of 'mental deficiency' hospitals in pre-1960s Britain to the rise of the modern 'neurodiversity' movement.

Dr Evans, Wellcome Trust Postdoctoral Research Fellow at QMUL's School of History says: "It's hard to overstate how radically our understanding of autism – and its prevalence - has shifted since the middle part of the last century."

"The diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorders in children and adults has rapidly increased in the last twenty years. More and more people also now self-identify as an 'Aspie' or someone 'on the spectrum'. Autism has become part of our common language for describing and understanding human individuality and self-identity. We live in a culture in which many of us think about the meaning of autism and its relation to ourselves, or someone we may know," said Dr Evans.

Before 1960, autism was used to describe the early stages of all child life, in which infants experienced vivid dreams, thoughts, hallucinations, and fantasies. This understanding – widely accepted – was built on a Freudian model of human development in which fantasies preceded an infant's engagement with other people and reality. It was believed that every child was autistic at some stage, but that some were unable to develop beyond this phase.

In the late 1950s, children's social and educational services were thrown into crisis following the closure of long-stay 'mental defective' institutions. Many children were left without rights to education as it was thought they could not learn. Parents, teachers, and other advocates then argued that 'autistic' children were not just stuck in an early stage of thought but that they were a unique population group who required distinct social services.

Dr Evans says: "During the 1960s, the meaning of the word autism was turned on its head. Autistic children came to be regarded as having unique 'impairments of imagination, social interaction, and communication' that required new educational methods and rights. This theory of autism was dominant for many years."

Dr Evans also discusses the modern-day rise of autism's 'third phase': the growth of the 'neurodiversity movement', which has challenged the impairment model and embraced elements of the 'imaginative ' of the past.

'The metamorphosis of autism: A history of child development in Britain' is published by Manchester University Press.

Explore further: Vitamin D supplements may benefit children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Related Stories

Vitamin D supplements may benefit children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

November 21, 2016
Vitamin D supplementation improved symptoms of autism in a recent trial.

Australia-wide autism report calls for 'agile' response in classrooms

May 11, 2016
A report investigating the educational needs of students with autism has identified social and emotional needs as the top priority to ensure success at school.

Tests show no specific gastrointestinal abnormalities in children with autism

February 25, 2016
Children with autism have no unique pattern of abnormal results on endoscopy or other tests for gastrointestinal (GI) disorders, compared to non-autistic children with GI symptoms, reports a study in the Journal of Pediatric ...

Unlocking the languages of autistic children in families

July 28, 2016
Researchers at the University of Kent are arguing that creativity and intermedial languages can be used as a bridge to communicate with autistic children.

Autistic children with better motor skills more adept at socializing

September 11, 2013
In a new study looking at toddlers and preschoolers with autism, researchers found that children with better motor skills were more adept at socializing and communicating.

Recommended for you

Signaling pathway may be key to why autism is more common in boys

October 17, 2017
Researchers aiming to understand why autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are more common in boys have discovered differences in a brain signaling pathway involved in reward learning and motivation that make male mice more vulnerable ...

Whole genome sequencing identifies new genetic signature for autism

October 12, 2017
Autism has genetic roots, but most cases can't be explained by current genetic tests.

Mum's immune response could trigger social deficits for kids with autism

October 10, 2017
The retrospective cohort study of 220 Australian children, conducted between 2011-2014, indicates that a "an immune-mediated subtype" of autism driven by the body's inflammatory and immunological systems may be pivotal, according ...

Largest study to date reveals gender-specific risk of autism occurrence among siblings

September 25, 2017
Having one child with autism is a well-known risk factor for having another one with the same disorder, but whether and how a sibling's gender influences this risk has remained largely unknown.

Faulty cell signaling derails cerebral cortex development, could it lead to autism?

September 20, 2017
As the embryonic brain develops, an incredibly complex cascade of cellular events occur, starting with progenitors - the originating cells that generate neurons and spur proper cortex development. If this cascade malfunctions ...

Predicting atypical development in infants at high risk for autism?

September 12, 2017
New research from the Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) identifies a potential biomarker that predicts atypical development in 1- to 2-month-old infants at high ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.