Autism Timeline

Autism Basics

A man with Aspergers painting in his art studio
A man with Aspergers painting in his art studio. Photo by Huntstock/Getty Images

For many people, tragically, the story of autism starts with Andrew Wakefield.

Most people understand that his false ideas and discredited research have scared people from vaccinating their kids, but it likely also made people believe in an autism epidemic tied to vaccines.

Some people go so far as to question where all of the autistic adults are if there isn't a new epidemic of autism that was triggered by an increase in vaccine use.

History of Autism

If you take just a little time to understand the history of autism, it is easy to see that there are plenty of autistic adults around and that autism has been around a long time.

The real story of autism goes back decades, if not centuries. In fact, Steve Silberman, in his book NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, goes so far as to say that "autistic people have always been part of the human community."

The most recent history of autism (positive and negative) includes:

  • Oliver Sacks writes that Henry Cavendish, a scientist born in 1731,  had many characteristics that "are almost pathognomic of Asperger's syndrome." (1731/2001)
  • Graham Farmelo, in his book "The Strangest Man," writes that Paul Dirac, a scientist born in 1902,  likely had undiagnosed autism. (1902/2011)
  • Grunia Sukhareva, a child psychiatrist in Kiev, Russia, writes about children with autistic traits in a scientific German psychiatry and neurology journal. (1926)
  • Louise Despert, a psychologist in New York, wrote about 23 cases of childhood schizophrenia, some of which had symptoms that resemble today's classification of autism. (1938)
  • Hans Asperger publishes the first scientific study of children with autism or Autismus, a case study describing only four children, although it is clear that he was working with 100s of children with autism and Aspergers syndrome at his clinic in Vienna. (1943)
  • Leo Kanner publishes "Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact," describing 11 patients with early infantile autism (a name he coined in 1944) in the journal "The Nervous Child." (1943)
  • Kanner's proclaims his theory that autism is caused by refrigerator mothers (1949)
  • Lauretta Bender worked with autistic children in the 1950s and 1960s
  • Bruno Bettelheim writes his book "Empty Fortress," which reinforces the refrigerator mother theory as the cause of autism. (1967)
  • In DSM-I, children with symptoms of autism were labeled as having childhood schizophrenia. (1952)
  • Leon Eisenberg publishes his paper "The Autistic Child in Adolescence," following 63 autistic children. (1956)
  • The Autistic Children's Aid Society of North London is formed (later becomes  The National Autistic Society). (1962)
  • Bernard Rimland publishes his book "Infantile Autism: The Syndrome and Its Implications for a Neural Theory of Behavior." (1964)
  • Ole Ivar Lovaas begins working on his theory of ABA therapy for autistic children. (1964)
  • The Sybil Elgar School begins "teaching and caring for children with autism." (1965)
  • A group of parents of autistic children had the first meeting of the National Society of Autistic Children (now called the Autism Society of America). (1965)
  • In the updated DSM-II, there is still no separate category for autism. (1968)
  • The National Society of Autistic Children's First Annual Congress was held in Washington. (1969).
  • Somerset Court becomes "the first specialist centre for people with autism in the UK." (1972)
  • Lee Felsenstein, who was later diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, creates the first electronic bulletin board - Community Memory. (1973)
  • Education for All Handicapped Children Act is enacted "to support states and localities in protecting the rights of, meeting the individual needs of, and improving the results for" children with disabilities, the majority of which were previously excluded from school. (1975)
  • Lorna Wing helps to develop the 'triads of impairment' theory of the autism spectrum disorders (1970s )
  • DSM-III finally includes criteria for a diagnosis of infantile autism with three essential features. (1980)
  • Susan Moreno creates a newsletter with contributions from people with autism "Residual Autism Newsletter" (later renamed to 'more able autistic people' or MAPP) (1984)​​
  • Temple Grandin writes 'Emergence.' (1986)
  • A video of a 24-year-old autistic adult is released - 'Portrait of an autistic young man.' (1986)
  • DSM-III-R adds PDD-NOS and adds a little more flexibility to the diagnosis of autistic children. (1987)
  • Autism is included as a separate disability category in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), making it a little easier to get services. (1990)
  • Donna Williams, an autistic adult, wrote the first of four autobiographical books - "Nobody Nowhere." (1991)
  • "20/20" and other shows do a report trying to connect environmental pollution and autism in the town of Leominster, Massachusetts, a supposed autism cluster that is soon debunked, including that half of the kids didn't even have autism and some didn't even live in the area. (1992)
  • The Autism Network International organization is created by a group of autistic people. (1992)
  • More subtypes and more symptoms are added to the autism diagnosis category in DSM-IV. (1994)
  • Catherine Maurice writes the book 'Let Me Hear Your Voice: A Family's Triumph over Autism' (1994)
  • Michael is an autistic character in the book 'Microserfs' (1995) by Douglas Copeland
  • Oliver Sacks, MD writes 'An Anthropologist on Mars,' which includes several stories about autistic adults, including Temple Grandin and Stephen Wiltshire. (1995)
  • Autism Network International's first Autreat conference for autistics is held. (1996)
  • Cure Autism Now is formed and eventually merges with Autism Speaks. (1995/2007)
  • Andrew Wakefield published his paper in Lancet and says that he would no longer use the combined MMR vaccine because of risks of autism. (1998)
  • Judy Singer writes about neurodiversity. (1999)
  • The Autism Society adopts the Autism Awareness Puzzle Ribbon as "the universal sign of autism awareness." (1999)
  • The Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee (IACC) is established by the Children's Health Act of 2000.
  • Karyn Seroussi writes the book 'Unraveling the Mystery of Autism and Pervasive Developmental Disorder: A Mother's Story of Research and Recovery' (2000)
  • Talk About Curing Autism (2000)
  • Steve Silberman writes 'The Geek Syndrome' in Wired magazine (2001)
  • DSM-IV TR (2002)
  • The Global and Regional Asperger Syndrome Partnership (GRASP) forms, an organization run by people with Asperger's and Autism Spectrum Disorders. (2003)
  • Bernard Rimland, of the Autism Research Institute and Defeat Autism Now! protocals, writes the book "Recovering Autistic Children." His autistic son was born in 1956. (2003)
  • Wrong Planet, a website for autistics, is launched. (2004)
  • Susan Senator writes 'Making Peace with Autism' (2005)
  • Ari Ne'eman starts the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN). (2006)
  • Dora Raymaker and Christina Nicolaidis start the Academic Autistic Spectrum Partnership In Research and Education (AASPIRE). (2006)
  • Combating Autism Act (2006/2011)
  • Amelia Baggs posts 'In My Language' video to YouTube (2007)
  • A CDC / ADDM report states that autism prevalence is at 1 in 150 children (children born in 1994). (2007)
  • Jenny McCarthy begins working with Generation Rescue, another organization that thinks that vaccines and other environmental factors cause autism. (2008)
  • Alison Singer resigns from Autism Speaks and starts the Autism Science Foundation. (2009)
  • A CDC / ADDM report states that autism prevalence has increased to 1 in 110 (children born in 1998). (2009)
  • Corina Becker writes a post that starts the first annual Autistics Speaking Day. (2010)
  • Andrew Wakefield loses his medical license and is banned from practicing medicine, following the retraction of his autism paper. (2010/2004)
  • Julia Bascom starts The Loud Hands Project. (2011)
  • The Thinking Persons Guide to Autism is started. (2011)
  • Paula Durbin Westby organizes the first Autism Acceptance Month, which now takes place each April. (2011)
  • A CDC / ADDM report states that autism prevalence has increased to 1 in 88 (children born in 2000). (2012)
  • DSM-5 combines autism, Asperger’s, childhood disintegrative disorder, and PDD NOS into autism spectrum disorder. (2013)
  • A CDC / ADDM report states that autism prevalence has increased to 1 in 68 (children born in 2002). (2014)
  • Autism CARES Act of 2014
  • Steve Silberman writes NeuroTribes (2015)
  • Latest CDC / ADDM report states that autism prevalence remains at 1 in 68 (children born in 2004). (2016)

What's next?


Manouilenko I, Sukhareva--Prior to Asperger and Kanner. Nord J Psychiatry. 2015 Aug;69(6):479-82

Baker, Jeffrey, P. Autism at 70 — Redrawing the Boundaries. N Engl J Med 2013; 369:1089-1091

Fellowes, Sam. Did Kanner Actually Describe the First Account of Autism? The Mystery of 1938. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. July 2015, Volume 45, Issue 7, pp 2274-2276

Feinstein, Adams. A History of Autism: Conversations with the Pioneers.

Silberman, Steve. NeuroTribes. 2015.

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