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THE HISTORY OF AUTISM - POSSIBLE EARLY FINDINGS?

Whilst Autism is not "Misunderstood Genius", the stereotype of Autism is people who sit in a corner, unable to speak, who rock, bang their heads on the floor, have tantrums and don't want to mix with others is also inaccurate. This stereotype is as misunderstood as people with Autism often are. There are individuals with Autism who want to make contact with other human beings but don't know how to, because they don't understand the basic, but contradictory rules which govern social interaction. Autistic people, if they can't speak, can't tell people to go away when they feel overloaded or overwhelmed, so they rock or behave in other repetetive fashions instead.

Autism is not a new condition. It didn't suddenly appear in humans in 1943. The first ever recorded case of Autism was probably made in 1800 and the condition almost certainly has been around for centuries before that.

In 1800, a Frenchman named Jean Marc Gaspard Itard wrote an account of a 12-year-old boy (his approximate age) who had been living for in a Forest until he was captured on Wednesday 8th January 1800. Itard named the boy Victor, who made no direct communication and was very self-absorbed.

Itard assumed that Victor had grown up without any form of human contact as he never spoke, and would gesture if he wanted/needed something. According to Itard, Victor would pull someone by the arm to gain their attention and wanted items to be in the same place constantly. He was also very unhappy unless the object was moved back to its former place. Itard also described how, when Victor wanted to ride in a wheelbarrow, he would pull someone by the arm, put the wheelbarrow handles in their hands, then climb in and wait to be pushed.

Itard's papers were published in 1801 and were titled the "Wild Boy of Averyon". Though Itard failed at teaching Victor language, he had a breakthrough emotionally. Victor lived with Itard and his housekeeper Madame Guérin. One night, while setting the table, Victor noticed Madame Guérin crying over the loss of her husband; he stopped what he was doing and consoled her. Victor died in Paris in 1828, but three years before his death, Itard was credited with describing the first case of Tourette syndrome in Marquise de Dampierre, a woman of nobility. Itard passed away ten years later, in 1838.


In 1809, eight years after Itard's findings were published, John Haslam, a medical professional based in England, wrote an account of a boy who contracted a severe case of measles aged 12 months in a book titled "Observations on Madness and Melancholy". The boy's behaviour, after his recovery, resembled that of a child with Autism, as he had repetetive speech and impulsive behaviour. He had been admitted to Bethlem hospital in London, at the age of six. This hospital became notorious for its noisy, chaotic conditions and cruel treatment of patients. However, it also became recognised as the world's first and oldest institution to provide any type of care for the mentally ill.

Nearly a century after the "Wild Boy of Averyon" was discovered, M.W.Barr, a late 19th century Psychologist, described in a 1898 medical report an encounter he had with a 22-year-old retarded male who, according to Barr, had a phenomenal memory and Echolalic speech. The report was called "A note on Echolia, with the report of an extraordinary case" and was published in the Journal of Nervous Mental Diseases that year. However, nothing further was acted upon it and no in-depth study was made of the person referred to in the report.

In 1919, an American Psychologist named Lightner Witmer wrote about a two-and-a-half year old boy who displayed several aspects of Autistic behaviour. He was accepted at Witmer's special school, and individual teaching over a long period of time helped this child compensate for some of his disabilities.


HOW AUTISTIC PEOPLE MAY HAVE BEEN TREATED IN THE PAST

In the 18th and 19th Century the so-called "Idiot Savants", who we now know were Autistic, could well have been shown in travelling "Freak shows", led by people such as PT Barnum. This was the heyday of the "Freak Shows". NT Audiences may have watched, in amusement or amazement or curiosity or puzzlement, Autistic savants, as they performed their skills or struggled to speak as they did so. Bear in mind though, that the Savant skills occur in around 30% of classically Autistic people. Not every Autistic person is like Rainman.

If Autistic savants were displayed in freak shows, non-savant Autistics, I suspect, throughout the 19th Century and the first half of the 20th century were probably locked away in mental hospitals because local authorities simply didn't know what do with them or where to put them, or they would have been lumped in the asylums with people who I nowadays call GLDers.

Civilised humans have been on the earth thousands of years (The earth is around six billion years old) but psychiatry is a science that is only around 100 years old, and as a result, in its infancy. I believe there is a great deal to learn about the subject of Psychiatry in general, along with Autism. I also believe that there are plenty of conditions out there waiting to be discovered. Just think about the progress that has been made in the last two decades or so on subjects such as Asperger's, Autism, ADHD, Dyspraxia and other developmental disabilities, that are neither General Learning Disabilities nor mental illnesses.


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