The term "autism" was coined by German psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler in 1911, according to Michelle O’Reilly et. al. They stated autism was first distinguished as a discrete concept by Austrian psychiatrist Leo Kanner, who in 1935 described the condition’s characteristics, such as a "need for sameness, aloneness, and obsessions." Another German pediatrician, Hans Asperger, also fleshed out autism around the same time. Reilly et. al. said that Asperger, a man who historians proved had voluntarily assisted the Nazi "euthanasia program", felt that people with autism lacked empathy. This assertion has since been debunked (PDF). They also stated that Asperger thought people with autism were clumsy and had deficits in communication and forming friendships (Asperger, 1944, as cited in O’Reilly et. al., 2019).
Fred Volkmar and James C. McPartland of Yale University shared that autism was first included in the third Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). In 1980, Lorna Wing and Judith Gould coined the term "autism spectrum disorder," which theorized that the perceived levels of autism severity lie on a continuum. David C. Giles wrote that the DSM-IV introduced "Asperger’s Syndrome." Psychologist Tony Atwood stated in his 2007 book The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome that Asperger’s Syndrome differentiated itself from autism mainly by the average or above-average levels of intelligence those with the condition had. However, as Richard Bentall observed in his 2009 book Doctoring the Mind: Why Psychiatric Treatments Fail, the DSM-5 eliminated this term to reflect how autism traits are multi-faceted, not categorizable in levels of severity. Instead, the umbrella term "autism spectrum disorder" covered what was formerly called "Asperger’s Syndrome," as well as other forms of autism. J. B. Barahona-Correa and Carlos N. Filipe stated that currently, the DSM-5 criteria for "autism spectrum disorder” include "a mandatory dyad of impaired social interaction and communication, and restricted, repetitive behaviors and interests."
Throughout history and today, non-autistic people often have non-consensually institutionalized and "treated" people with autism. Kathleen P Levinstein, PHD, LCSW, LMSW (PDF) chronicled the history of one such treatment, Applied Behavioral Analysis. Ole Ivar Lovaas founded Applied Behavioral Analysis to make people with autism "indistinguishable from their normal friends." His method of achieving this was hitting or spanking the children with which he worked, as Levinstein noted. Levinstein remarked that Lovaas is also responsible for gay conversion therapy, in which he hit and used electric shock therapy to make gay people, again, "indistinguishable from their peers." Lovaas’s methods have been popularized, as Levinstein observed:
City University of New York researcher Brown (2008) observed the very same flaws again and reported them again, nearly two decades later. ABA providers are more likely to be comfortable with the use of aversives, including restraint, seclusion, and food, water, and sensory deprivation, as well as electroshock, particularly against the disabled, who are often seen as, in Lovaas’ (1974) words, less than human. "You see, you start pretty much from scratch when you work with an Autistic child . You have a person on the physical sense, they have hair nose and a mouth but they are not really human in the psychological sense," Lovaas claimed in an interview. "After you hit a child, you can't just get up and leave him; you are hooked to that kid". (Chance, Psychology Today, 1974)
While many people who have not experienced autism firsthand feel that Applied Behavioral Analysis is a positive form of therapy, those born with autism overwhelmingly disagree. The following sources outline their reasons:
- Invisible Abuse: ABA and the things only autistic people can see — NeuroClastic
- Is the Most Common Therapy for Autism Cruel? — The Atlantic
- Association for Behavioral Analysis International Endorses Torture — Autistic Self Advocacy Network
- Behind the Anti-Neurodiversity Articles: An Unholy Alliance of Usual Suspects — NeuroClastic
- The controversy over autism’s most common therapy — Spectrum
- How much compliance is too much compliance: Is long-term ABA therapy abuse? — Taylor & Francis Online
The autism community is diverse in that anyone of any race, ethnicity, gender identity, class, and other factors can have this condition. However, people of color face more barriers to diagnosis and supports. In addition, women are underdiagnosed.
People in the autism community have varying relationships to their condition. Some consider autism to be a disability, while some simply feel it’s a positive difference. In addition, some people consider autism to be an integral part of their identity and consider themselves "autistic," while others feel that autism is something that they have that is separate from their identity. These people may call themselves "people with autism." Likewise, some people want their autism to be cured or treated, while many others do not. Many people with autism do not want those who have not experienced autism firsthand to create research and policies, take positions on autism-related issues, or other matters without the autism community’s input.