What does “autism” actually mean?
The term “autistic” was first used in 1911 by the Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler; the word “autism” is composed of two Greek terms:
Autism = “autos” = “self” and “ismos” = “state/orientation”.
Historical background to the definition
Shortly before, in 1908, Bleuler had shaped the term “schizophrenia” and, as part of his research on this, had initially defined autism as a fundamental symptom of schizophrenia.
Until the 1970s, autism was therefore considered an early form of schizophrenia.
It was not until the 1980s that early childhood autism was included under its own diagnosis code as a “typical psychosis of childhood”.
The reason for this were studies by the English professor Michael Rutter (1984-1985), as well as the previous studies and observations of the Swiss psychiatrist Leo Kanner (1943-1944) and the Viennese psychiatrist Hans Asperger (1944).
While Bleuler saw autism as a symptom or precursor of schizophrenia, for Kanner the communication problems and resulting isolation as well as the insistence on rituals were decisive.
According to Asperger’s observations, the problems lay above all in establishing contact and in linguistic peculiarities; he also described “a disproportion between the mental and the simple practical action”, which manifested itself in motor difficulties and repetitive movements.
Autism manifests itself in many different ways
Kanner and Asperger independently made different and identical observations and findings:
Kanner syndrome, also known as early childhood autism, was named after Leo Kanner.
The Asperger syndrome, which is often referred to as the “mild form” of autism, was named after Hans Asperger.
Whereas in Kanner syndrome the first peculiarities appear before the age of three and there is often a reduction in intelligence and a delay in language development, Asperger syndrome is usually accompanied by normal to increased intelligence and good language development, whereas in this case social interactions are more impaired.
(The respective studies can also be found in our history page).
Thus, the symptom became a diagnosis in its own right and it became clear that autism has no clear subdivision, but is a broad spectrum of characteristics with fluid transitions.
Currently, autism is categorized as a “profound developmental disorder” and by definition is not a disease, but is considered a “mental disability” under the Social Security Act.
While this of course initially appears mainly negative due to the terminology, the positive aspect should not be disregarded: Because of this classification, autistic people are entitled to assistance, depending on the degree of their limitations.
For those affected, being autistic does not mean that one has a general disability. Rather, the challenges in everyday life vary from person to person; also, not everyone needs help – but if you need it, you are eligible for it.
People are disabled if their physical function, mental ability or mental health is likely to deviate from the condition typical of their age for more than six months and their participation in life in society is therefore impaired.§ 2 – Social Security Act Book Nine (SGB IX); see: https://www.buzer.de/gesetz/5856/a80821.htm