6 Autism Terms That Have Disappeared from the Textbooks

Professor Texbook
Professor Texbook. Getty Images

Over the years, the words used to describe autism and people with autism have changed radically.  Today, there are many terms that have either been removed from diagnostic literature or retired from polite conversation.  Here are just a a few.

  1. Childhood Schizophrenia.  What would cause a child to be inwardly focused, non-verbal, unable to respond appropriately to social cues?  For many years, doctors and researchers assumed that such behaviors were a result of mental illness.  While the symptoms of autism are quite different from those of schizophrenia, they are similar enough to suggest a connection.  Thus, during the 1950's and 60's, many children with more severe symptoms of what we now call Autism Spectrum Disorder were diagnosed with Childhood Schizophrenia. While Childhood Schizophrenia is a real diagnosis, however, it is now understood to be quite different from autism.
  1. Refrigerator Mother.  How might a child become so distanced from others that he or she is unwilling or unable to communicate, make eye contact, or engage in ordinary play?   Bruno Bettleheim and Leo Kanner (the man who gave autism its name) believed that the problem related to cold, distant "refrigerator mothers" who so traumatized their children that they literally drove them into autism.  Very fortunately, later research showed that the refrigerator mother theory held no water -- but many parents were blamed, unnecessarily, for their children's autistic symptoms.
  2. Infantile Autism.  The term "early infantile autism" was coined by Leo Kanner in 1943. Dr. Bernard Rimland, the parent of a child with autism, became a major player in the work of understanding and treating the disorder.  His work entitled "Infantile Autism" was an important step toward that goal.  Infantile autism referred to what might be called "severe" autism, and it entered the diagnostic manual in 1980 (with the DSM III).  In 1987, with the publication of the DSM IV, the term disappeared from common usage.
  1. Asperger Syndrome (or Asperger's Syndrome).  Hans Asperger was a German pediatrician who studied the symptoms of young people who were nowhere near as disabled as those with infantile autism but who, nevertheless, had significant challenges in the areas such as social communication. Asperger's work was largely ignored (due in part to World War II) until decades later. In 1980, Asperger Syndrome became an official diagnosis in the DSM III.  In 2013, however, with the DSM 5, Asperger Syndrome ceased to be an official diagnosis.  Today, while the term is still widely used to describe what many call "high functioning autism," it is no longer a true diagnosis.
  1. Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS).  Like many autism-related terms, PDD-NOS came into use in 1980 and disappeared again in 2013.  PDD-NOS was a catchall diagnosis intended to describe children who didn't entirely fit the autism criteria but were clearly more severely (or differently) challenged than children with Asperger syndrome.  Like Asperger Syndrome, PDD-NOS became a very popular diagnosis, with numbers soaring between 1980 and 2013. Today, of course, there are exactly zero people with a PDD-NOS diagnosis!
  2. Mentally Retarded.  Even in the fairly recent past (less than one hundred years ago) people with cognitive challenges were referred to by doctors as idiots, morons, and imbeciles (depending upon their level of challenge).  The term "mental retardation" was actually coined to avoid the use of those much more negative terms. Today, as the term has gained greater negative connotations, most people have replaced it with "cognitively challenged" or "intellectually disabled."  As a side note, it's important to know that typical IQ tests are not always appropriate for people with autism -- for whom spoken language can be a challenge.  Thus, while many people with autism are diagnosed with cognitive challenges, that diagnosis is not always correct.

    Continue Reading