First English citation of "autism" (August 1912)

Chuck Borsos sqeezbox at CRUZIO.COM
Sun Dec 15 07:13:30 UTC 2002

The contemporary usage of autism can be traced back to the
descriptions of Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger in the 1940's.  This
usage of autism is distinguished from Bleuler's usage, (although it
seems to have been derived from Bleuler).

Quoting Uta Firth, Autism: Explaining the Enigma, pg.7:

    "Any treatment of the topic of childhood Autism must start with
the pioneers Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger who, independently of each
other, first published accounts of this disorder.  These
publications, Kanner's in 1943 and Asperger's in 1944, contained
detailed case descriptions and also offered the first theoretical
attempts to explain the disorder.  Both authorities believed that
there was present from birth a fundamental disturbance which gave
rise to highly characteristic problems.
    It seems a remarkable coincidence that both chose the word
'autistic' in order to characterize the nature of the underlying
disturbance.  In fact, it is not really a coincidence, since the
label had already been introduced by the eminent psychiatrist Ernst
Bleuler in 1911.  It originally referred to a basic disturbance in
schizophrenia (another term coined by Bleuler),namely the narrowing
of relationships to people and to the outside world, a narrowing so
extreme that it seemed to exclude everything except the person's own
self.  This narrowing could be described as a withdrawal from the
fabric of social life into the self.  Hence the words 'autistic' and
'autism', from the Greek word autos meaning 'self'.  Today they are
applied almost exclusively to the developmental disorder that we here
call Autism, with a capital A.  I prefer to use Autism rather than
'early infantile autism' or 'childhood autism', terms which imply
some contrast to 'adult autism', and may wrongly suggest that one can
grow out of it."

So if Firth is correct on the date of Bleuler's German coinage, Barry
Popik's English citation comes just a year later.  And my memory is a
bit fuzzy here, but as I recall, the early literature on Autism
(developmental disorder) often called it 'childhood autism' to
distinguish it from the description of the schizophrenic state (as
suggested by Firth above).

Incidentally, I believe that Kanner and Asperger (as well as Rett,
who described Rett Syndrome, which is a degenerative condition
similar in some ways to Autism), were all Viennese trained, though
Kanner worked in the United States (at John Hopkins if I remember

Chuck Borsos
Santa Cruz, CA

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