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"Could We Have Ignored Autism in the Past?"

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Could We Have Ignored Autism in the Past?

This piece proposes a few possibilities for why there actually are as many adults as children currently on the spectrum, though they may not be diagnosed.

  1. We called them something different
  2. We used to be much less open about disabilities and problems than we are now
  3. Autism has less of a stigma today than many other disorders

1.- I'll buy that this is a possibility. She says we may have called it obsessive compulsive disorder or mental retardation. I would accept that there was less co-morbid diagnosing going on in the past, leading to the diagnosis of one thing, which may be incorrect, or incomplete.

2- I'm not sure what she means by this. That people were less likely to seek professional guidance/help/diagnosis? That may be the case, but that would have to be a LOT of cases to make a meaningful dent.

3- I don't agree. People are not educated about autism and don't understand it and there is a lot of stigma and misinformation surrounding it.

A lot of comments on it, too.

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I wasn't disgnosed with Asperger's till I was 48: it wasn't a possible diagnosis when I was a child.

My traits came with other labels, to the extent that being very shy, clumsy withdrawn and obsessively bookish wasn't just passed as within the "normal" range.

I didn't turn AS in my 40's: I was always me.

I'm not one for the approach of "claiming" various successful people in the past for various diseases of conditions, but there are observations that can be made.

And I'm pretty certain, looking back from my current knowledge, that my maternal grandfather would have qualified as an aspie, too.

Some different societies and time-periods would also have provided better "cover" or "hidden" more people on the AS spectrum...

I suspect I woud have made a superb Victorian scientist, emerging from the laboratory just on occasion to greet my wife (acquired on a semi-arranged basis of social acceptibility) who dealt with the vast majority of my social interactions, which, in any case, were much more formalised and overtly regulated then. Which suits some of us better than a "touchy-feely" age.

(The behaviour men in particular could get away with I suspect was broader, then, too.)

...or would more have written them off and marginalised them, especially in case of the more markedly affected.

And there would have been more niches in simple agricultural or craft labour...

So, for a variety of reasons, yes, different levels of autism would not have appeared "on the radar" to the same extent as they do today.

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I had a conversation with my mom on this not long ago. She is nearly 80 and was talking about the later 30s, 40s, and some of the 50s. Her perspective is that autism has always been around. People just didn't see it as a discrete disorder. Low IQ was classed as retarded. Functional but slow was considered simple. Regular or high IQ was seen as eccentric, shy, whatever adjective described most apparent traits if there were obvious traits. This isn't to say distinctions weren't recognized. It's just that people didn't have names for the differences and that there were not targeted treatments for each, at least not that lay people knew.

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I do actually agree with the second one. Just because people aren't completely open about things now doesn't mean they're not more so than before. It used to be that anything weird (in the "crazy person" sense) was something you hid from people. If there was a crazy person in your family, you did not tell anyone about it, even close family friends, if at all possible. It's not exactly common anymore to lock people up and hide them away somewhere (sometimes literally) to pretend they don't exist because it's shameful. It's practically normal now for people to casually mention seeing their therapist, and it comes up all the time on mainstream TV (both fiction and non-fiction) all the time, for example. There's still a long way to go, but you can at least talk about things like that in public and seek help for them without being burned at the stake these days.

I also to some extent agree with the third, too. Just because there is still stigma doesn't mean that there isn't less than there used to be or less than compared to some other things. People may be misinformed or have negative reactions towards it, but it seems to be at least a bit more "acceptable" than something like schizophrenia. Obviously not compared to plain old depression or anxiety that are easier to relate to for "normal" people, but I could see a reasonable argument being made for it being less stigmatized than some of the other "weird" things that people tend to be poorly informed about and have a harder time understanding.

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I definitely agree with 1 and 2. I can tell you from my years in school in the 50s, that I knew kids who were in the "special" class and some of them were developmentally disabled, and I think others had autism---only the school didn't recognize it.

I remember two boys in particular, younger brothers of a friend of mine. They never developed the social skills to go to dances and have girlfriends, but I never felt that they had low IQs or anything. Their family had a farm, and the boys did just fine with the cows and chores and cutting hay. They didn't talk a lot, but they didn't need to when they worked on the farm.

If you talk to older people, almost everyone had a family member who was "different." Some of these people may have had a mental illness, and some of them were developmentally disabled, but I bet a lot of them were undiagnosed autistics. And people didn't talk about ANY of this stuff. If someone had cancer, it was whispered about and no one actually discussed it. Sometimes the patient didn't even know what he had.

So yeah, I don't think any of those kids in our "special" class in school were told what was going on and I can guarantee you that their families were very hush-hush, too. Those kids weren't taken to church or to activities, or allowed to play sports. (That's why the Special Olympics was founded, to give disabled people a shot at competing in a sport.) There were a lot of families with an "Uncle Harry" in the back bedroom who had never worked and didn't go anywhere.

I don't know about #3.


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Nalgas said:

If there was a crazy person in your family, you did not tell anyone about it, even close family friends, if at all possible.

Absolutely right. Remember, up until the sixties, people who had more obviously-disabled family members commonly sent them off to state institutions and would pretend they never existed, or they did their best to hide them. If someone insisted on keeping their mentally retarded child at home and/or taking them out in public, they would have been looked down on back then. Now someone wanting to automatically institutionalize a retarded child (what was expected fifty years ago) would be looked down on. The norm has changed.

Farming is a very physically tough occupation, but it doesn't take academic ability. I doubt ADD people would do well at it, but someone who enjoys doing repetitive tasks, all day, and likes a calm, quiet environment? That'd be great.

I have heard form a couple of sources that the increase in the diagnosis of autism is precisely mirrored by the drop in diagnoses of mental retardation, meaning that most lower-functioning autistics would have been diagnosed as mentally retarded in the past. Now they are getting a more accurate(and possibly helpful) diagnosis.

I read somewhere that the majority of Americans are no more than one generation off of a farm-that is, at least one parent grew up on a farm. Our society has changed in the blink of an eye, really, and it's not a surprise we are having a lot of trouble adapting.

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I graduated from high school in 1977 and have a brother who graduated in 1966, and who today would be clearly diagnosed as having Asperger's. Even our own mother once commented, "Well, Patrick is a little peculiar". I don't think he's ever received a formal diagosis, probably because after dealing with it for 60+ years, why bother, but he's right in there with all the traits - very, very bright (64 sided cube theory, anyone?), trouble reading social cues, etc. Since he wasn't physically ill and wasn't harming anyone, he was just our eccentric brother, who did really well in school (especially math), and sucked at nearly everything else.

I don't recall ever hearing the term autism until about 10-15 years ago (although I admit I wasn't listening for it), and definitely not when I was in school. We did have special education/slow classes for the "retarded"/"slow" kids, though, so presumably the kids with autism got lumped in there, or kept home, which also happened occasionally, and was definitely only discussed in whispers.

And as others have remarked, even run-of-the-mill physical maladies weren't discussed very much in any public forum. My dad was in the hospital a lot when I was a kid but I could never visit him there because they didn't allow anyone under 16 to visit even though I was immediate family. No one under 16 who wasn't a patient was allowed anywhere in the hospital, not just intensive care or infectious disease wards, but anywhere other than the lobby. I don't recall being specifically told not to, but I never talked about my dad being sick and hospitalized, it just wasn't done, and I grew up in working/middle class in the U.S.

And I used to walk to school uphill both ways, too! ;)

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In addition to being dxed mentally retarded, autistic people were often diagnosed schizophrenic as well. In the 50s schizophrenia was the diagnosis du jour. People were dxed for being even remotely strange or eccentric , "negative symptoms" alone (which autism could be seen as a type of negative schizophrenia, given the loss of social skills and seemingly purposeless behavior). Many schizophrenics in 50s institutions would be autistics today.

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