Autism in History

(In this new guest post in The Autism Anthropologist, it’s a real pleasure to have Bonnie Evans. Bonnie is a Wellcome Trust Postdoctoral Fellow at Queen Mary, University of London. She is currently conducting a project entitled “Neuroscience, Psychology and Education: Autism in the UK 1959-2014.” She is interested in the development of psychology, psychoanalysis, psychiatry, and related neurosciences in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. She completed her Ph.D. at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, Cambridge University, in 2010 on the origins of child psychiatry and childhood schizophrenia research and its influence on contemporary theories of autism. After completing her Ph.D., she worked as a postdoctoral researcher at King’s College, London’s Centre for Medical Humanities. Her first monograph, The Origins of Autism, is contracted with Manchester University Press and is due out later this year.)

I never set out to write about autism.  My interest in the history of psychology and the human sciences directed me towards this subject and compelled me to reflect on the meaning of autism and its changes over time.  It was whilst searching through back copies of child psychology journals, and examining case studies of children admitted to institutional care from the 1930s to the 1970s, during my PhD research, that I realised the importance of autism, as a diagnostic category and a descriptive concept, to shaping theories of child development in Britain and the USA, and now I am totally hooked on the topic.  Autism has been central to child psychology since its establishment as a discipline in the early 20th century, yet the story is not always told this way.

A recent article that I wrote for the History of the Human Sciences examined how the meaning of autism changed dramatically in the 1960s and 1970s in the Anglo-American world, and the significance of this to understanding today’s ideas about autism.  Whereas pre-1960s autism presumed excessive imagination, fantasies and hallucination in subjects so defined, post-1960s autism highlighted the lack of imagination, fantasies and hallucination in autistic thought.  This has altered how societies have come to think about child development, and its differences, its atypicalities.[1]

I’m not always in an archive. My work in the education sector has brought me into contact with far too many interesting children and adults – some with a diagnosis of autism – for me not to challenge hackneyed beliefs about human types.  I am fascinated with the neurodiversity movement and the way that it makes psychologists, psychiatrists, policy-makers, and others rethink and re-examine their training and their beliefs. This is a good thing.

My current project explores autism, education and neuroscience as these things have developed in Britain since the 1960s.   Another recent article that I wrote in the Bulletin of the History of Medicine explored how the 1959 Mental Health Act forced legal changes concerning the rights of children classed with ‘mental defect’ to an education forced bureaucrats, psychiatrists and psychologists to re-think the way that children were assessed, classified and taught as part of the education system.  It also forced changes in the organization of hospital care for children, which have helped to frame contemporary understandings of autism.[2]

After the 1959 Mental health Act, researchers at the Institute of Psychiatry, London, in particular, have worked with government departments to bring about changes in the way that children with all kinds of special educational needs are assessed and taught, eventually leading up to the 1981 Education Act (1983). The 1981 Act introduced Statements of Special Educational Need into schools, only recently replaced by Education Health and Care Plans.  These legal milestones have been fundamental in establishing, shaping and defining the autism category, and its political clout in the UK.  The 2009 Autism Act is the reflection of a complex history of attempts to establish autism as a category that is recognized in law, a battle that was not easily won.  My book, coming out soon with Manchester University Press, will cover this history, along with a discussion of autism in relation to wider theories of child development.

There are far too many clichés in the way that the history of autism is often told in the press and elsewhere, which can lead to inaccuracies.  This is particularly important in relation to discussions of recent increased rates of autism, because historical knowledge is vital in detecting how much of the increase is due to changes in the application of diagnostic categories.  There is now some really interesting sociological and historical work on the autism epidemic, notably Gil Eyal’s book, The Autism Matrix.[3]  Other sociological, historical and literary scholarship has opened up new ground in ways to think about autism.[4]

Since the early 20th century, autism has been an important concept with which to think about human development.  Today’s autism, as a diagnostic category, as a legal term, as a self-identifier, as a descriptive concept, is no less complex than earlier definitions. What has definitely changed is that more people are thinking, talking and writing about it.

 

[1] B. Evans, “How Autism Became Autism: The Radical Transformation of a Central Concept of Child Development in Britain,” Hist Human Sci 26, no. 3 (2013). http://hhs.sagepub.com/content/26/3/3

[2]B. Evans, “The Foundations of Autism: The Law Concerning Psychotic, Schizophrenic, and Autistic Children in 1950s and 1960s Britain,” Bull Hist Med 88, no. 2 (2014). http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/bulletin_of_the_history_of_medicine/v088/88.2.evans.html

[3] Gil Eyal et al., The Autism Matrix (Cambridge: Polity, 2010).

[4] E.g. Chloe Silverman, Understanding Autism : Parents, Doctors, and the History of a Disorder (Princeton, N.J. ; Woodstock: Princeton University Press, 2011); I. Hacking, “Autism Fiction: A Mirror of an Internet Decade?,” University of Toronto Quarterly 79, no. 2 (2010); Stuart Murray, Representing Autism : Culture, Narrative, Fascination (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2008); Majia Holmer Nadesan, Constructing Autism (London: Routledge, 2005).

 

List of References:

Evans, B. “How Autism Became Autism: The Radical Transformation of a Central Concept of Child Development in Britain.” Hist Human Sci 26, no. 3 (2013): 3-31.

Evans, B. “The Foundations of Autism: The Law Concerning Psychotic, Schizophrenic, and Autistic Children in 1950s and 1960s Britain.” Bull Hist Med 88, no. 2 (2014): 253-85.

Eyal, Gil, B Hart, E Onculer, N Oren and N Rossi. The Autism Matrix. Cambridge: Polity, 2010.

Hacking, I. “Autism Fiction: A Mirror of an Internet Decade?” University of Toronto Quarterly 79, no. 2 (2010): 632-655.

Murray, Stuart. Representing Autism : Culture, Narrative, Fascination. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2008.

Nadesan, Majia Holmer. Constructing Autism. London: Routledge, 2005.

Silverman, Chloe. Understanding Autism : Parents, Doctors, and the History of a Disorder. Princeton, N.J. ; Woodstock: Princeton University Press, 2011.

 

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2 thoughts on “Autism in History

  1. Pingback: Why Should a NT Anthropologist Try to Study Autism Anyway? | The Autism Anthropologist

  2. Pingback: Revisiting ‘Refrigerator Mothers’ and the Consequences of Blame | The Autism Anthropologist

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