Many myths and fallacies are attached to ASD but perhaps one of the strangest is the idea that it only actually began in the 1940s, when Leo Kanner in the US and Hans Asperger in Austria both wrote papers on the subject; describing similar but apparently different symptoms which gave rise to the terms 'autism' and 'Asperger's syndrome' both of which now come under the umbrella term 'autistic spectrum disorders'. 

The e-zine Age of Autism have an article (dated March 2013) which asks How recent is autism?   It  goes on to cite the 'fact' that a number of celebrities including Sean Connery, Clint Eastwood and Angela Lansbury are all older than the first person to be diagnosed - in August 1931.  That idea plays neatly into the idea that autism is 'manmade' and that it's entry into the world is caused by toxins.  The idea being that the first toxin,  introduced in 1931, was the ethylmercury which was used in fungicides and vaccines.  Certainly Kanner felt that such problems were rare, but can it really be true, that ASD was, for want of a better term,  a new phenomenon that only developed in the 1930s? 

Having done much research into autism for my forthcoming series The Autism Code,  I am very clear that that idea is totally unfounded.  No, it did not begin in the 1930s even if the terms for it were only coined in the 20th century. 

So let's see when and where it might have begun.

While it is very difficult to step back in time to earlier centuries when the problems of mental illness and what are now called learning disabilities were often inseparable,  we do have some clear guidelines that can help.  Thus we know that many such children (though not all) only begin to show signs of problems at around the ages of twelve to eighteen months old, when they may start regressing, lose skills they formerly had and developing a variety of strange behaviours.  

It hardly needs a great leap of imagination to see a link with ASD in the stories of 'changelings'  that are woven into the folklore of many different countries and date back centuries.  Surely these were just the way in which our ancestors ‘explained’ how an apparently normal baby could suddenly change, into a quiet,  remote child who shunned others or a frenetically active child or one whose behaviors were bizarre or extremely perplexing.

However such children were not simply confined to folklore as we learn from some of the best known researchers who, over the years,  have contributed to our knowledge of this topic using examples which date back to the early 18th century. 

Thus in their fascinating book Autism in History: The Case of Hugh Blair, Professors Rab Houston and Uta Frith tell the story of a young Scottish man from a wealthy family who lived between 1708 and the 1760s. 

While his contemporaries classed him 'fool', the authors tell us of his many eccentricities and strange behaviors.  These included copying social greetings but not initiating them;  a prodigious memory for his favourite topic and also a number of obsessions - all things which make them believe he is an ideal candidate for ASD.

While people like Hugh Blair were cared for by their families others were abandoned to fend for themselves; some living wild.  As historian Paul Collins tells us in his book Not Even Wrong: Adventures in Autism one of the first such children to demonstrate such 'autistic features' was Peter the Wild Boy: a semi-feral boy of about twelve, found living wild and naked in woods near Hameln in Hanover in 1725, where he was said to have been seen walking on all fours, climbing trees like a squirrel and eating grass and moss. 

When captured it was noted that although he was able to make some sounds Peter had no speech  and seemed deaf (as many children with ASD do) although but could hear a walnut being cracked several rooms away.  He was also found to be alert, inquisitive and happy;  albeit decidedly different.

Prominent men of the time declared that he was a genuine feral child and so King George I took him under his protection,  eventually giving him to her Royal Highness the Princess of Wales as a gift.  Thus Peter lived in St James's palace for a while before being sent to live on a farm where, although he never learnt to talk well, he remained for the rest of his long life.

In contrast to Peter, the treatment of Victor, the Wild boy of Averyon had far reaching consequences which are still found in many countries today.  His story is similar to that of Peter's - a child around  twelve years old found naked and mute in the woods near Lacaune in France in 1798. 

Described as extremely self-absorbed he never spoke;  simply indicating his desires by gestures: so that if he wanted a ride in a wheelbarrow for instance, he would pull someone by the arm, put the wheelbarrow handles in their hands, then climb in and wait to be pushed.   It was also noted that he liked things to remain in the same place – and would get very upset if they changed.

While Philippe Pinel (regarded as the founder of modern psychiatry), thought that Victor was blind and ‘an incurable idiot’ the  French physician and educator Doctor Jean Marc Gaspard Itard took a very different view.  In stark contrast to Pinel he believed that Victor’s problems were associated with social isolation and undertook to educate him; albeit with limited success.

However, although Victor never made the progress that Itard hoped for the  techniques Itard used  and his willingness to stand up for  Victor were very influential, beginning an educational revolution that would gradually begin to help change attitudes towards people with disabilities. 

Meanwhile other children would have been confined to 'asylums' as we learn from the late Dr Bernard Rimland.  His research led him to retrospectively identify a 5-year-old boy admitted to the Bethlem Royal Hospital in London (commonly known as Bedlam) in 1799 as having autism. 

He based his supposition on the detailed description of the boy's background which was recorded by John Haslam, the apothecary who worked there at the time.  Thus we learn that the child had had a severe case of measles when only twelve months old and,  by the age of 2,  was hyperactive, impulsive and difficult to control. Nor did he speak until he was 4, only speaking in the third person, referring to himself as ‘you’.   A seemingly ideal candidate for the diagnosis of ASD you might think.  And yet such a diagnosis would not be available for more than a century.

However the 19th century too would have it's fair share of children who fit such a category as you will see in Part Two of this series.

Author's Bio: 

Stella Waterhouse is a writer and therapist who has worked children and adults with a variety of learning differences since the late 1960’s.

In the mid 1980s Stella worked at a residential home for approximately 40 adults with Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD), where she became Deputy Principal.

In the 1990s Stella set out to write a short book on the role of anxiety in autism., which at that time received little attention. Her research led her to investigate the causes of ASD as well as role of sensory disorders - particularly those of an auditory or visual nature.

The original ‘short’ book evolved into a much larger project and has so far spawned two full length books including A Positive Approach to Autism - Jessica Kingsley Publishers, plus a series of short books for parents and teachers all of which are currently available as e-books.

Stella is currently completing her new series The Autism Code. For more information on Stella and her products please visit