The History of Autism Part I – Origins of Autism

In 1911 a Swiss psychiatrist known as Dr. Eugene Bleuler made a startling discovery. While studying individuals with schizophrenia, a term he coined, he noticed that many of those same patients had related symptoms that he hadn’t diagnosed before. These patients seemed entirely withdrawn, oblivious to the people around them, and completely self-absorbed. Finding a way to describe them, he stumbled upon the term “autism” derived from the Greek word “autos” meaning self, in this case wholly self-absorbed. This is my two part blog that focuses on this journey of autism from a symptom of schizophrenia to a federally recognized  disorderin 1991. In order to be aware of the present, we should also be aware of the past.

In the many years that followed Dr. Eugene Bleuler’s discovery, autism remained categorized as a version of schizophrenia for a sub-group of patients. In 1926 it was claimed that Soviet neurologist, Grunya Sukhareva, was the first to extract autism from schizophrenia. Dr. Sukhareva even used the term “autistic psychopathy” years before Dr. Hans Asperger (whom I’ll get to later) did to describe his patients. But the man who made the theory popular was Dr. Leo Kanner, an Austrian psychiatrist who ended up in the United States, due to poor conditions in his adopted homeland of Germany. Shortly after his arrival in 1935, Dr. Kanner wrote the pioneering book “Child Psychiatry”.  It was this book that stoked the curiosity of a family from Forest, Mississippi, the Tripletts. The Triplett’s oldest son, Donald, had gone through many unusual symptoms that the family couldn’t figure out.  The father wrote a very long essay to Dr. Kanner and he agreed to meet with Donald, who became known as autism’s Case #1.

What Dr. Kanner found out from Donald was groundbreaking in the world of psychology. Up till that point he thought that autism was a part of schizophrenia but now he wasn’t sure. Donald didn’t have delusions, nor did he experience “voices” or other hallucinations that were typical symptoms of people with schizophrenia. Donald was living in his own world, but it wasn’t separate from the reality he really lived in. In fact Donald, now in his 80s, has acknowledged that he didn’t cry when his mother died in 1985, because he “just didn’t react” not because he was oblivious to her death. These new findings, along with observation of several other patients similar to Donald, had Dr. Kanner propose a new theory that autism, instead of being a relative of schizophrenia, it was of its own being.  He ended up calling it “infantile autism”, since his preoccupation was with children who shared those traits, and he published an article on his new theory called “Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact”.

Around the same time, in the mid to late 1930’s, another Austrian psychiatrist laid the groundwork for deeper insight into the world of autism. Dr. Hans Asperger, whom Asperger’s Syndrome is named after, had met with patients diagnosed with “autistic behaviors” but were of a wider group and variety from the ones Dr. Kanner had seen, and had expressed greater interest in the most high functioning patients. While these patients exhibited many symptoms of autism, their symptoms were seen as benefiting them, not disabling them. Since he was not a child psychiatrist, he followed many of these patients through their successful careers, including the Nobel Prize in Literature winner, Elfriede Jelinek.  Of these patients, he was convinced that “autism psychopathy” played a part in their successes. In fact, he even started a school for those with “autism psychopathy” but the school was destroyed and the co-founder killed during World War II bombings.

While one would expect such research to be crucial to the total understanding of autism, none of his work was translated into English and it took a year after Asperger’s death when the English speaking world learned about his research through British psychiatrist Lorna Wing, who published an article about him in 1981, calling his more specialized diagnosis as “Asperger’s Syndrome”, and coining the term “the Autism Spectrum”.  But it took a decade later, for German developmental psychologist Uta Frith to put out the first translated works of Dr. Asperger, which ended up making Asperger’s Syndrome official as a universal disorder.

In the second half of this blog, I will convey the impact of the new diagnosis of a neurological disorder during a moment in time when the practice of eugenics, a political ethos built around genetic purity and the warehousing of the disabled, was popular.  This became the governing ethos of a vile nation state during the 30s and 40s. I’ll also discuss whether or not a counter-intuitive disorder like Asperger’s Syndrome was turned into a political gambit by its very own namesake. And lastly, I’ll share information on the first popular “root cause” of autism, the Refrigerator Mother Theory, which has been discredited. Hope you had a lovely Autism Awareness Month in April, and stay tuned for more history!


Double the Insight: An Interview with Alex Plank of Wrong Planet

On April 28th of this year, Els for Autism is going to help celebrate the end of Autism Awareness Month by hosting the inaugural Autism Innovations & Global Impact Conference: The State of the Science which will see a team of leaders all devoted to explaining the current state of the union on autism. One of our presenters, who is hosting the VIP dinner, is a shining star of sorts, not just with what he can talk about regarding autism but also how he utilized his condition as a springboard for opportunities for everyone, including himself, who seeks to be heard, or understood, when it comes to Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

His name is Alex Plank, founder and owner of Wrong, a forum for those with Asperger’s Syndrome, a variant of autism, which has become the largest web forum for autism. This past Wednesday I was given the opportunity to have a 30 minute interview with him when he toured the Els campus.

Now, typically, when doing an interview I just keep to the script, even if it hurts, with very little room to improvise or to concentrate on the answers of the person being interviewed, almost like a robot. With Alex, for the very first time in my short interviewing “career”, I felt like I could finally be myself. What went from an interview turned into a conversation, as I could relate so much to a person who I could’ve been friends with years ago as we have the same condition, Asperger’s, the same birth year, 1986, and were born very close to each other – he in Charlottesville, Virginia and me in Columbia, Maryland – but we finally got to talk to each other now. While it is usually inappropriate to talk about the growth of a simple interview, for me it was a big deal as it allowed us a greater connection than if it was just some random neurotypical.

Alex Plank was first diagnosed with Asperger’s at the age of 9, a year after the U.S. government officially recognized the variant of the disorder, around that time young Alex was being bullied a lot and had a hard time reading social cues and making friends, since his direct approach of asking people to be his friend led him to rejection after rejection. Like Alex, I didn’t have a large group of friends, and as I grew, instead of eating lunch in the cafeteria I would eat it in my next classroom, or I would spend time in a small classroom for autistic kids, “Hannah Moore School”, studying and maybe having lunch afterschool, while Alex would be beating his guidance counselor at chess, “He wasn’t just doing it to make me feel better” adds Alex, though he also added, “I hope”. We also found it easier to bond with the teachers, and the adults, on a school’s campus than the students themselves because of our interest in things that the adults could relate to more than the kids.

When he found out about his diagnosis while going through his parent’s documents, he felt ashamed, like he was somehow defective. As the years have gone on, he has come to understand his strengths and weaknesses. While he had to self-teach himself all kinds of social cues by studying others at his alma mater, George Mason University, the innate “obsession” or hyper-focus abilities that autism gives a person facilitated his starting Wrong Planet at the age of 17. He does believe that while focusing on academics is a laudable life skill what will shape your world will be something that relates to those inner “obsessions”, in his case computer science and movies which have helped him succeed in jobs.

So, the big question you may have is: How did Alex start Wrong Planet? Throughout much of his life, Alex Plank didn’t know anyone like him, and it was especially almost impossible to connect through the magic of the internet, it was long ago enough that Wikipedia had only one server, so he and a forum mate, Dan Grover, talked about how they should create a web site meant for people with Asperger’s Syndrome to find each other, with the name coming from the both of them feeling like they are “aliens from some foreign planet”, living on the wrong planet.

What does he want to do for the future? While he wants to create better quality resources for people to use from his web site, he is especially interested in maximizing the social climate for Aspies by facilitating offline social events, and conferencing so that social functions like dating, and just hanging out, could have a purpose besides an online forum.

Besides Wrong Planet, Alex has worked with the visual medium and has used his reputation as a way to speak at different public events. In 2010, as a side-project for Wrong Planet, Alex started a web series called Autism Talk TV. The 26 episodes typically deal with educational topics for those with autism, expert and authoritative interviews, and even a few appearances by native co-hosts, Kristen Lindsmith and Jack Robison (son of John Elder Robison who wrote, “Look Me In The Eye”), who both have autism themselves. From 2013-2014, he had worked as a consultant, and briefly acted, on FX’s “The Bridge”, a TV series about a detective with undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome who has to solve crimes. He has also appeared in multiple documentaries including “Shameless”, a French documentary about the misunderstanding of autism in that country, but what I really wanted to know was his perspective on the big blockbuster movie, “The Accountant”, where Ben Affleck plays an Aspie anti-hero.

While he liked the “absurd, off-the-wall movie”, his biggest disappointment was that there was nobody with autism credited for the making of the movie, but rather a bunch of doctors, even the Aspies who Ben Affleck claimed helped the film for him, were uncredited. To Alex, (and to me), doctors and specialists will never work in the same way that people with actual autism, because while they may treat those with autism, they can never know what it is truly like “to be someone with autism”. He also responded to the portrayal of Affleck’s character by saying that it is a myth that people with Asperger’s are cold, and devoid of any interest in social interaction.

As far as public appearances, many of which can be seen in videos on the web, Alex has given many keynotes at conferences for ASCEND and the Autism Society of America, and even DJ’ed at an all-autism wedding. What can he give audiences that many conference speakers cannot?

“I’m very tired and fatigued from these autism conferences where it’s dry and you hear the same stories over and over again,” he commented. Alex wants to overcome the typical doldrums of the circuit by enlivening his speeches with humor and fun, “making light of really bad situations by making fun of them.” He will also use his expertise in Hollywood to go over how autism is treated in the media, and how important it is for people to understand it. In a past year with “The Accountant” and academy award nominee, “Life Animated”, I think that his message couldn’t be more relevant.

So that was my interview with Alex Plank, if you have any personal experiences with the man, leave a comment, or any stories about Wrong Planet, and if you just wanted to read my writing, again, make sure to follow the blog.

To register to attend the conference and/or to meet Alex Plank at the VIP Dinner on April 28th, go to: