So let us start with a simple question. What is autism? Webster’s Dictionary defines autism as a complex pervasive developmental disorder which involves the functioning of the brain. It is a neurological disability and not simply a psychiatric disorder, although typical characteristics include problems with social relationships and emotional communication, as well as stereotyped patterns of interests, activities and behaviors. It also involves problems with sensory integration. Typically, it appears during the first three years of life.
Some parents have compared the rapid change in their child to someone coming into their house, stealing their child and replacing the child with someone completely different. Such a statement shows how quickly autism can become apparent.
It is estimated autism occurs in as many as 1 in 150 American children born every year, and it is four times more prevalent in males than in females. In fact it is estimated by the Autism Society of America that almost 1 in 94 of every American boys are diagnosed with autism every year. It is even more prevalent in Caucasian males.
Autism is known as a spectrum disorder, due to the fact that a large spectrum of disorders falls within the autism diagnosis. One example is Asperger’s syndrome, which is a higher functioning form of autism. Another is sensory integration dysfunction. It is estimated that less than 10 percent of autistic children are labeled as autistic savants. Only an extremely small percentage of cases are able to master with perfection a specific skill such as the piano, math, history, mechanics, etc.
There are two main types of autism: regressive autism and early infantile autism. Early infantile autism is present at birth, while regressive autism typically starts to take effect around 18 months.
Most people with autism have problems relating to others. However, within the past decade, it has become evident that early diagnosis can lead to a treatment plan that can help limit the effects of autism and in some cases, help the child relate to the world and learn to communicate better.
Now that we know what autism is and some basic facts on autism, let’s look at the history of autism. The term autism has been in use for around 100 years. However, when the term was first applied, it was used to define a class of people with schizophrenia by Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler in 1911. Autism comes from the Greek word autos meaning “self.” This term was used for this group because people with autism are typically drawn into their own world and markedly detached from socially accepted interaction.
In 1943, a doctor from Johns Hopkins University, Leo Kanner, began a study on children with social or emotional problems, comparing them with children with schizophrenia, and rightly concluded there was a difference between the two disabilities. He began to differentiate the children with schizophrenia and the other children, whom he began to label as “autistic.” Although his research showed there was a distinct difference, the separation of autism did not start in earnest with most doctors until the 1960s.
During the 1960s and 1970s, the early history of treating autism became very cruel, as doctors started using techniques such as LSD, electric shock and harsh behavior-changing techniques such pain and punishment. It was hoped that these procedures would change the behavior of the children and force them out of their own world and into more acceptance of social interaction.
Thankfully, from the 1980s to the present, the common treatment for autism is a far more humane one. It is a highly structured learning environment, as well as behavior-modification strategies such as A.B.A. (Applied Behavior Analysis). Programs such as A.B.A. primarily focus on the behaviors of children with autism, with the intent to modify their adverse behaviors into more socially accepted behaviors.
Autism itself can be a devastating diagnosis for any family, but let’s take a look now at some famous people in history who have shown autistic traits and are now commonly believed to have had some form of autism. Perhaps you’ve heard these quotes: “The important thing is to not stop questioning.” “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” “My life is a simple thing that would interest no one.” “I didn’t speak till the age of 5 because I really had nothing to say.”
Maybe not all of us would recognize those quotes, but surely we would all recognize E=MC². Yes, Albert Einstein. He was slow to learn and talk. In fact, in his younger years he developed a weird habit. He would construct whole sentences with his lips before letting out a single word, and then he would say all of it at once.
Although Albert Einstein is thought to have been one of the greatest minds of all time, many people have accepted that he was, in fact, autistic. His writings and his known behaviors have been studied and his brain and how different areas of it functioned have been examined. From all this we can learn something very valuable: Although people with autism seem socially and emotionally different from us, some are still extremely intelligent. Think about where we would be now without Einstein and his contributions to our world.
It would surprise many to learn of the other famous people with autism or who showed autistic traits. Another such example is Thomas Jefferson. He displayed unconventional behavior throughout his illustrious life.
“One winter, he put in book form all the information on Virginia that he had been collecting for many years. The work was published in 1785 as Notes on the State of Virginia. It became one of the most famous and respected scientific books of its time and was acclaimed in Europe and America. Jefferson had described and reflected on the natural history, geography, climate, economics, Native Americans, religion, manners, agriculture, politics, and many other aspects of his native state” (Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia 99).
The fact that he compiled a large amount of data in so short a time points out that he had an extreme ability to pay attention to facts and details, which is one of the many facets of autism.
There are many other famous people in history who have shown autistic traits, such as Leonardo Da Vinci, John Lennon and Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Why spend time talking about these people who have shaped and changed our culture and the way we think throughout history? To point out that people with autism should not be considered outcasts of society, especially not to us as members of the Church. Instead, by educating ourselves, we can gain respect, understanding and compassion for those who, through no fault of their own and with no other option, are forced to live out their lives in a way radically different from ours.