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Autism Awareness: How It Started, How It’s Grown

April is Autism Awareness Month—also known as Autism Acceptance Month, Autism Advancement Month, or World Autism Month. Official name and focus are still evolving half a century after the observation was founded, but few would disagree with the goal of widespread understanding for autism and neurodiversity.

The word “autism” was coined in 1908 by European psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler; however, the condition he described was not autism as we know it, but extreme social withdrawal as a symptom of schizophrenia. (Bleuler interpreted this as self-absorption, or “auto-ism.”) The name stuck even after autism was recognized as a separate condition.

In the century-plus since the word “autism” first appeared, the world has learned much about the real autism.

Early Days

1943: Leo Kanner of Johns Hopkins University publishes “Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact,” the first detailed medical paper on autism proper. Kanner recognizes autism as a separate condition from either schizophrenia or intellectual disability—an idea that will take years to gain large-scale acceptance.

1944: Austrian doctor Hans Asperger publishes “‘Autistic Psychopathy’ in Childhood,” based on his observations of young boys who show high ability in certain areas but lack typical social skills. The paper, while reflecting contemporary biases, also recognizes that “autistic” people are capable of functioning in and contributing to society.

1965: The National Society for Autistic Children (later the Autism Society of America) is founded.

1970: The Autism Society designates April as the first National Autism Awareness Month.

1971: Autism is officially recognized by medical science as a separate condition from schizophrenia.

1973: U.S. President Richard Nixon issues a proclamation designating June 24–30 as National Autistic Children’s Week, and recognizing the problems of institutionalization and educational exclusion.

1981: British psychiatrist Lorna Wing coins the term “Asperger’s syndrome” (after Hans Asperger) for certain types of “high-functioning” autism. (Wing was also the first to promote the idea of autism as a spectrum disorder, with a wide range of symptoms and functionalities.)

Changing Times

1989: The nonprofit Best Buddies is incorporated with a mission of providing personal support to people with intellectual and social disabilities. Over the next decade, the organization will establish its trademark focus on pairing these individuals with “neurotypical” peers for moral support (and inclusion influence) at school and work.

1998: Australian sociologist Judy Singer introduces the word “neurodiversity,” urging people to look beyond the “disorder” label and see the inherent advantages of autism. U.S. journalist Harvey Blume uses “Neurodiversity” for an Atlantic article title, and states, “Neurodiversity may be every bit as crucial for the human race as biodiversity is for life in general.”

2008: The United Nations designates April 2 as World Autism Awareness Day.

2011: The Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN) begins urging people to change the “Autism Awareness Month” designation to “Autism Acceptance Month,” stating that “Acceptance of autism as a natural condition in the human experience is necessary for real dialogue to occur.”

mom helping young son write in kitchen

Still Moving Forward

2013: The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders removes Asperger’s syndrome as a separate condition from autism spectrum disorder.

2016: Controversial nonprofit Autism Speaks (founded in 2005 as a research and advocacy network) seeks to rebrand itself in the face of criticism for emphasizing the negative and ignoring the voices of people who actually have autism. AS references to “curing” or “fighting” autism are replaced by greater focus on helping people with autism reach their full potential.

2021: The Autism Society of America, citing the need to emphasize large-scale inclusiveness for people with autism, announces that their preferred designation for April is now Autism Acceptance Month.

2023–: Easter Seals Greater Houston and others continue to promote inclusiveness, individualized education, and understanding so people with autism can develop their full potential. We look forward to a future where everyone is valued for their unique gifts and abilities!

We will be covering autism-related topics throughout this month. Watch for articles on:

  • Managing your child’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP)
  • When autism is first diagnosed in the teen years
  • Preparing for adulthood with autism
  • And much more!

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