Early infantile autism was the name first given to the neurodevelopmental disorder first written about by Dr. Leo Kanner in the early 1940s. Usually diagnosed before the age of three infantile autism disorder is characterized by a social ineptness, impaired communication skills both verbally and non-verbally and an inability to partake in normal imaginative play. Before Dr. Kanner was able to differentiate this disorder from other difficulties many autistic children were thought to be schizophrenic.
In the early 1800s a textbook called Observations on Madness and Melancholy relates the case of a five year old child who was admitted into a hospital with what appeared to be childhood schizophrenia but which researchers now feel certain was early infantile autism.
The boy had been ill with measles in his first year. When he was two his parents noticed that he was more livelily than other children. Yet, he did not walk until he was two and a half and did not speak until he was four. When brought to the hospital he exhibited almost no separation anxiety when his mother left him. After numerous tests one thing that was noted was the child seemed to have no understanding of distance. The little boy would reach for something that was very obviously too far away for him to be able to get. This odd behavior would be described now, in the jargon of the day, as a faulty awareness of ego limitations.
Socially he kept to himself although he did like to watch the other children when they played. He exhibited repetitive play with some toy soldiers he had. He was able to whistle tunes he had heard but they were unable to teach him to read. Oddly the child always referred to himself in the third person. As well, although he seemed to know the names of many objects he was unable to use them in the correct manner.
The thing that makes this case so remarkable is not so much the study of the time, but the fact that it has been studied since and that the facts all point to this likely being the first recorded case of early infantile autism as the little boy was found to have seventeen of the thirty potential symptoms of autism.
Researchers feel that this account is the best, most clearly written before Kanner identified early infantile autism in 1943; including for the previous one hundred and forty years between this account and Kanner’s pronouncement.
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