Autism

Question from friend and wordpress guru marcelle:

“I’m curious about the current theories on what causes autism. I understand it occurs at a much higher rate than it used to (or that it is more frequently diagnosed), and I’ve heard the vaccination theory, and also heard that it’s bunk. So, I don’t really understand what’s going on here, or what is agreed upon (and disagreed upon) by informed scientists. I know that you don’t actually have the definitive answer to this — if you did, you’d be pretty famous — but I’m curious about the state of the discussion.”

Autism was first described as a disorder in 1943 by Leo Kanner, a psychiatrist out of Johns Hopkins.  In 1944, Hans Asperger in Austria described a similar condition, which became known as Asperger’s, and both of them are credited with identifying the symptoms associated with what we call autism spectrum disorders.  Of course, autism and other related disorders have been around long before 1943.  Martin Luther apparently described a boy with what was probably autism in his “Table Talk”, and his conclusion was that the boy was a soulless lump of flesh that was possessed by the devil.  People in Ireland and India described “wolf children”, kids left out in the woods by their parents and apparently raised by wolves.  The children were often mute, unable to walk or make eye contact, and insensitive to cold, and it is possible that some of these children could have been autistic (from “The History of Autism”, by Sula Wolff, 2004).  Continue reading