How Old is Autism? Is It a New Thing or Has it Been Around a Long Time?

I’ve seen this question asked a lot around the internet, and have been asked by a lot of people “Why is there so many people getting Autism these days?”

Keep in mind, I’m in no way telling you that this is how it is, it’s just my take on what I know based on what I’ve read and come to my own conclusions…

A lot of people blame vaccines, if not for actually causing Autism in their child, then for at least triggering it or being the final straw that allows it to manifest and steal their child away from them. The reason I bring this up is that it, in my mind, distorts their perception of the origins of Autism. Naturally, no one knows what causes it exactly or how long it’s been around, but I’d venture a guess to say that it’s been around a lot longer than our vaccinations.

For example, just yesterday I was discussing with someone how, when we were children, we had a lot less vaccinations than kids do today. Which is true, but then I think to people like Temple Grandin who is now 60, which is near twice as old as I am and how little she must have had to endure in the way of vaccinations. Also, I know some people that are Autistic and never once been vaccinated. And Autism happens in countries where vaccination isn’t even available! So, perhaps it’s a reason for the spike in occurrences but certainly not the cause. So it’s safe to assume that Autism was around before vaccines became a big money grab for pharmaceutical companies.

My grandmother, who is 75, asked me why there seems to be so much Autism these days, to which my reply was… are you sure there’s more now? It was in that instant, as she asked me, that I started to really contemplate it. My first question back to her was “when you were in school, was there a ‘special education’ class where the ‘slower’ kids were put?” and she said yes, there in fact was. I think most of us can remember such a class or classes in our school.. some had a trailer which separated them from the building. She said that those children didn’t talk, or would scream a lot, or needed a lot of extra help in learning things. Hmm… that sounds familiar.

The whole notion of Autism wasn’t even around until 1910, and even then it was used to describe schizophrenia, until 1938 when Dr Asperger used it to describe a much more specific disorder, the one we know today. That seems far enough back but in fact, even then it was still considered just to be an anti-social thing that children had due to “refrigerator moms” not loving them enough.

In the meantime, people have said that Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Mozart, Van Gogh and more quite likely had some form of Autism… it’s impossible to be certain obviously, but if true, then Autism could date back hundreds of years.

Now, we come back to present day and ask, why is there more now? Well, I’m no scientist so I can’t tell you for sure that there is or isn’t more cases today just that, in my opinion, I think it’s mostly a matter of people becoming more aware. I know people right now who’s children are obviously Autistic, but they’ve never been diagnosed. The parents either are clueless, simply not aware of Autism at all or are in denial. I read all the time of children being diagnosed at 2, 5, 9… even 15 years of age.

Remember, the doctors give the official diagnosis that gets counted but it’s the parents that have to make the initial diagnosis. They’re the ones that have to recognize, accept and seek out the diagnosis from a specialist before their child is counted.

Going back 5, 10, 20 years ago, there were very very few doctors that could make that diagnosis, much less parents that could recognize it. I mean, it wasn’t that long ago that moms were told they were crappy parents and therefore the cause of it. Why would they go to a doctor to hear that?

Do I think that there are more cases now than 100 years ago? Sure, it sure seems like it. Do I think that there’s some force causing a huge fluctuation in the numbers? Not so much, and I’m probably mostly alone in this thinking but I think given it’s long history, given how parents are becoming more aware and seeking diagnosis more now than ever before, given that there are more doctors and facilities to make a diagnosis… the numbers will just naturally go up all on their own even if the actual number of Autistic children don’t.

The question is, if we could have every single Autistic person counted now, and count every single one 5 years from now, taking out all the variables such as parents who don’t know, the ones that have no way to get a diagnosis, the ones that are simply getting a diagnosis later in life…  would the numbers be that much different? And if so, how different?

I would love to hear what you think… did you have a special ed class where “slow” children were placed even though they were never “diagnosed” with anything? Do you believe that Autism is a new thing that’s just coming on due to vaccines or pollution in the air?

About Stuart Duncan

My name is Stuart Duncan, creator of My oldest son (Cameron) has Autism while my younger son (Tyler) does not. I am a work from home web developer with a background in radio. I do my very best to stay educated and do what ever is necessary to ensure my children have the tools they need to thrive. I share my stories and experiences in an effort to further grow and strengthen the online Autism community and to promote Autism Understanding and Acceptance.

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11 Responses to How Old is Autism? Is It a New Thing or Has it Been Around a Long Time?

  1. Kirsten Jessiman June 11, 2010 at 9:24 am #

    As an autism mom, this topic is of great interest to me. Had my son been born twenty years ago, would he have been diagnosed with autism or something else?
    I read about a study in which a doctor tracked down adults who as kids had been diagnosed with a variety of mental and learning disorders. The doctor reviewed medical records, interviewed friends/family/teachers and where possible, the subject, and rediagnosed them according to today’s diagnostic criteria. Interestingly, she (I think it was a she) found the same rates of autism that we see today.
    I don’t remember the source – I will have to see if I can find the article.

  2. Stuart Duncan June 11, 2010 at 10:34 am #

    I would be very interested in reading that article, not only for the info but also to satisfy my own need to not be the only person who thinks that way!

    It just seems odd to me that anyone can say with any level of certainty that something is more common today than 50 years ago when doctors didn’t even know how to diagnose it 50 years ago, much less parents.

  3. Martijn van der Kooij June 12, 2010 at 2:40 pm #

    I’ve two brother who are 40+ and not diagnosed until 2 years ago. Both have asperger.
    My youngest son in autistic but did not receive any vaccines…. Maybe we would suffer more when he had, but it is not the cause of his autism.

    If I look back to my grand-uncles (is this valid english?) then i’m pretty sure some of the were also autistic.

    Ofcourse it does not prove much.

    I wonder if some of the so called autistic people are having trouble because of other reasons but with the same behaviour. And that could explain why some of them are cured with diets etc.

    We need more investigations in the causes of autism.

  4. Grace Cayer June 13, 2010 at 3:31 pm #

    Hi. Stuart, I was reading another write-up in the paper on Friday. At the end of it,it said, we haven’t done any indepth enviormental studies on Autism as yet.
    Years ago there wasen’t any thought about it. If a kid was slow in class at school he would be held back a year. I know quite a few kids had to do the year over again. You just thought they were kind of dumb and that was it.
    Now for the enviormental studies. i think that all the poison we are putting into our bodies these days. What we eat,drink breath all have an effect on our body so wouldn’t it effect reproduction in some way.
    Also today there is such advanced medical wisdom that there is a lot more things diagnosed then ever before.

  5. Maria X June 14, 2010 at 8:06 pm #

    Kirsten, I’d love to see the study you mention too!

    If you talk to adults on the spectrum, many will talk about childhood diagnoses of mental retardation, emotional/behavioral disturbance, speech/language disorders etc. I got “hyperactive” and “childhood schizophrenia”, amongst other things. I was formally diagnosed ASD at 13 or 14 in the mid 80s.

    Autism actually wasn’t in the DSM “psychiatric bible” until 1980 (Aspergers was added in 1994):
    …hardly surprising more people diagnosed when official diagnostic code there, and information re autism added to manual owned by most psychologists/psychiatrists.

    Three pieces of research I have to hand:

    1. Study following up children diagnosed with developmental language disorders in the 80s and 90s. Reassessed under today’s criteria, 1/4 found to be autistic:

    2. “Autism Spectrum Disorders in adults living in households throughout England 2007” – specifically set out to find/interview ASD adults in the general community. Bottom line: 1 in 100.

    3. “Social influence and the Autism Epidemic”

  6. Maria X June 14, 2010 at 8:14 pm #

    Some more good research and discussion here:
    The Increase in Autism Diagnoses: Two Hypotheses

    Check out the comments.

  7. Stuart Duncan June 14, 2010 at 9:03 pm #

    Amazing stuff, I’m glad I’m not the only one thinking this way… and in fact, I hadn’t even thought about the diagnose switching in play. It does make sense however that a lot of ‘general’ diagnoses of the past could be narrowed, or even broadened to include Autism Spectrum Disorder.

    As a further note, I just read here ( where it states:
    “According to WHO statistics, there are 600,000 to 1.8 million children with autism in China. But some scholars believe that the number might be several millions higher.”

    Seriously, what happens to our numbers if China suddenly institutes an Autism program and 2-5 million children are all diagnosed at the same time?

    It would seem to me that it would inflate the numbers quite a bit, well, the same thing is playing out around the world, it’s just not as obvious.

  8. Marie March 15, 2013 at 4:27 am #

    I think for some people that life in the early mid 20th century was just actually m ore ‘autism friendly’ most people lived where they parents had and did what their parents did / wore what their parents wore so the social rules were probably more explicit and easier to follow. Blokes were supposed to have a job that they were good at and if they were socially awkward it probably didn’t matter as much as they would have a full time wife to deal with other aspects of life? If you happened to be very very good at something like science, maths or law then being eccentric was sort of expected – just a thought!

  9. tracie duncan April 18, 2013 at 12:25 am #

    I have a daughter that has never been diagnosed. She displayed autism all throughout childhood and now adult life. She mimicked all types of behaviors from her peers in her special education classes and in acute psychiatric hospitals. I was told females don’t have Autism. You have to be a male. So how could she have been properly diagnosed. It depends on what end of the spectrum the person is on. Its to broad. I believe she is high functioning. I have a nephew that is low functioning. I now have my daughters baby(my granddaughter), which is a girl!. She is two years old. I have custody and I have not given her any vaccinations. I wanted the symptoms to come out naturally. She is showing major signs of non-verbal autism. I am in the middle of getting a diagnosis. I feel this is in your blood. You are born with it. In the United States the rule of thumb is, You must be social! If some people don’t have what it takes to be social, but they are the ones that create electric or art, who are we to say what the norms are and who are we to make them hold back and not be the creators. Where would we be if we did not have them in our life. Autism is non social, they are what helps us stay social. Electric, computers, art? Who are we to say? Its been around!

  10. Diane Croft February 10, 2017 at 9:30 am #

    All of these disorders were around forever, they just figured out names for them in the last 200 years, before that they were just called retarded or insane. Thank goodness they found acceptable names for these disorders, Borderline Personality Disorder was only named in the mid 20th century. Stop with all of the conspiracy theories and all this stupid vaccine crap.

  11. Ryan February 11, 2017 at 8:20 pm #

    I have believed that I am on the Aspergers scale. I’ve thought this ever since I found out it existed. I’m too afraid to mention it to my doctor as I’ve always thought it wouldn’t make any difference. Anyway, I truly believe that today’s expectations in society make aspergers stand out so much more. Facebook, Snapchat, and all the rest of them only make people with Aspergers more socially awkward. If things in life were so much simpler, like they used to be then it would not stand out as much as it does today. I can tell if someone has autism or Aspergers within 30 seconds. I even told my friend about his son and he said no way and after taking him to the doctors, he was diagnosed within weeks. I have often thought that if I lived back when there was less social expectations then I think I would have thrived and had no inability to do anything that existed at the time.

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