Autism in Antiquity

Autism Speaks says autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), can refer to various conditions involving challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech, and nonverbal communication. There are many variations of autism, it isn’t the same for every person who has it. One person afflicted with autism could be highly skilled while another could be severely challenged in terms of learning, thinking, and problem-solving.

Once, all this was unknown about autism as well as autism itself. Since the first use of the word autism around 1910, what is known about autism along with diagnosing it and treating it has evolved much.

“The concept and definition of the disorder have changed greatly over the years; some ideas once held with conviction, were later proved to be unfounded; and socio-political shifts as well as research findings have radically altered our understanding of the syndrome as well as the care and treatment offered to people with autism,” provides Springer Link.

Though there were many supposed causes of autism, like neglecting mothers or vaccines, they were proven false. We now know that autism comes from a combination of genetic and environmental factors and affects information processes in the brain as well as the function of nerve cells.

Efforts to help people who suffer from autism have come a long way too.

According to Wikipedia, early behavioral interventions and speech therapy may help kids with autism gain self-care, social and communication skills. Today’s world is much more accommodating toward autistic individuals compared to the past.

In the past, curing such individuals seemed to be the priority, even more so than first trying to understand the disease and the people who had it.

Early types of treatment include:

  • Electroconvulsive therapy — “Involves passing small electric currents through the brain to intentionally trigger a brief seizure. The resulting seizure episode is hypothesized to change brain chemistry in a way that reduces mental health symptoms”
  • Diet — “Originating in the 1920s, one school of thought is that autism is caused by toxic dietary factors and thus can be treated through changes in a child’s diet. … A gluten-free and casein-free diet, proteins found in wheat and milk products respectively, has been suggested to improve symptoms of autism in children”
  • Behavioral therapies — Includes aversive punishment or auditory integration training were effective in reducing unwanted or aberrant behaviors
  • Psychopharmatherapies — “Pharmaceutical treatments diminishing some of the behavioral symptoms of autism spectrum disorders, such as aggression, irritability, and self-inflicting injurious behaviors.” Medications like risperidone, aripiprazole, clozapine, and haloperidol were common
  • Special education programs — The Individuals with Disability Act was passed by Congress in 1975. This allowed children with ASD to experience that same level of education as others

Some of these are still used as treatments currently along with applied behavior analysis therapy (ABA).

Applied Behavioral Analysis Programs Guide says ABA “is the most successful evidence-based treatment approach for autism spectrum disorder” and “is a behavioral learning program with theories from behavioral psychology that reinforces and encourages positive behaviors and discourages negative behaviors” in children with ASD all while teaching children important new skills and how to apply those skills to real situations.

For a long time, autistic individuals were actually believed to have schizophrenia. Lina Zeldovich explains that Leo Kanner, an Austrian-American psychiatrist and physician, first described autism in 1943 as children who had extreme aloneness, delayed repetition of speech and obsessive desire of sameness.

Almost ten years later autism was defined as a psychiatric condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and it was later revised.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that “infantile autism” was listed as a disorder officially. This is when autism began to be more defined and recognized. A particular movie — Rain Man — helped spread awareness too.

And in 2018, the CDC reported that autism affected one in every 59 which shifted focus to autism and helped open opportunities for the nation to consider how to serve people on the autism spectrum and their families, claims Autism Society.

Thanks to all this and more there have been significant movements to discover more about autism and accommodate those with autism to help them recover rather than “cure” them.

Experts continue to view autism as a continuous spectrum of conditions, Zeldovich says.

According to Hannah Furfaro of Spectrum, “More than half of people on the spectrum have four or more other conditions.”

These conditions can include the following:

  • Medical issues like epilepsy, gastrointestinal disorders, or sleep problems
  • Developmental diagnoses such as intellectual disability or language delay
  • Mental health disorders like ADHD, OCD or depression
  • Genetic conditions such as fragile X syndrome and tuberous sclerosis complex

Screenings and scales to identify the conditions have been developed as well.

Autism awareness has come a long way with the help of social movements like the autism rights movement. Individuals with autism shouldn’t be discriminated against and be denied the same opportunities as others just because of their condition. It is up to you and me to exercise understanding and sensitivity toward individuals with disabilities. After all, autism doesn’t make a person any less than just that — a person.

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