Autism, per se, doesn’t really have a history. It is suggested that centuries ago, children and adults who were able to memorize or recite things they heard but couldn’t even speak their own names were the town idiots, fools, and morons. It is now known that in many of these cases, these children and adults were probably autistic, but the psychology of the day wasn’t exactly up to snuff as it is today.
In fact, psychology is a very young “science”, not really being studied or recognized until the mid to late nineteenth century. It was then that the likes of Freud and Jung began poking around the human mind to explain human behavior. But autism still wasn’t clearly understood as something separate and apart from mental retardation, and therefore the title of “idiot savant” was born. For another century, children and adults who were diagnosed as “idiot savants” were shut away in institutions because people believed they could not manage life on their own or even be taught. Again the idea that they were more retarded mentally than intelligent in some areas was quite pervasive.
This attitude persevered until the late seventies and early eighties when it was discovered that many institutions were regularly abusing their patients physically, sexually, mentally and emotionally. Institution life had been this way for hundreds of years but it wasn’t something that was discussed openly. Families who had wealth and secrets of children with “idiot savant” syndrome knew to some extent that institutions weren’t the nicest places to be. Some kept their children with disorders locked up at home while others, desperate for a way out from under the burden of their sick child, institutionalized them anyway.
After the Kennedy disability act went into effect, many of these institutions were opened up and the horrors exposed. People sought help to keep family members out of them at all costs, and “idiot savants” started to receive a different level of care, one which poked deeper into their savant skills to discover just what they were able to learn and not learn. As this area of psychological study advanced, it was still assumed that “autistic savants” as they became known, were still very rare and a psychologist or psychiatrist probably wouldn’t see a patient of this type in their lifetime.
As more in depth study continued, the spectrum broadened to include others which seemed to have similar characteristics but weren’t as severe. As the spectrum broadened, more and more doctors of psychology saw patients with autism. The “savant” aspect of the name was dropped in the late eighties and early nineties, as a sign of respect for these children and adults who had clearly been through so much already.
Now one in four boys around the world and an estimated one in six girls is said to have autism or autism like traits. It has taken our culture several thousand years to reach the point of understanding and diagnosing autism thus far and studies continue to try and find the cause behind it and whether or not there is a cure or preventive measure. Hopefully a complete understanding of autism won’t take us several more centuries to unlock, and in a generation or two from now we will be better educated than our predecessors were.