Historical perspective on prevailing ideas about causes of autism and its treatment

Adult This page shows how autism has been viewed at different times.

The most current discussion is whether there the different forms of autism, such as Asperger syndrome and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified, are actually different forms or not.


Pre 1960's

  • Autism thought to be psychodynamic i.e. caused by the mother's emotional coldness
  • Autism poorly defined: little or no differentiation
  • Few specialist approaches
  • Autism regarded as a variant of schizophrenia

Post 1960's

  • Psychodynamic theory debunked
  • Specialist education pioneered
  • Autism variously attributed to
    • Biomedical factors e.g. GI or allergies
    • Environmental factors e.g. toxins
    • Vaccines
    • Genetic factors
    • Predisposition
  • Functional neurodevelopmental factors


  • Growth of interest in biomedical treatments
  • Specialist 'autism specific' education established
  • Growth in use of behavioural treatments
  • Growth in use of drugs


  • Growing sophistication of behavioural treatments
  • Interest in autism specific approaches e.g. TEACCH imported from USA
  • Emergence of alternative approaches
  • More drugs


  • Resurgence of interest in biomedical treatments
  • Generic application of structured autism specific approaches (e.g. growth of TEACCH )
  • Changes in way autism diagnosed
  • Growth of cognitive behavioural approaches
  • More drugs

Current situation

  • Renewed interest in biomedical explanations and treatments
  • Behavioural interventions (ABA) remain popular
  • No shortage of new approaches: compelling anecdotal evidence-mostly unsupported
  • No drug for autism but some medications for secondary effects or co morbidities may be useful
  • Growing application of cognitive behavioural approaches

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25 Oct 2017