Autism in the 1970s: Easy to define, hard to pinpoint, much controversy, few solutions

Sister and brother playing with dollhouse

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Please note that that this is all old information, offered here for a historic perspective, and is not intended to reflect current thinking about autism.

Autism definition specific, but tough to pinpoint (1974)

Colorado Springs Gazette editor’s note from 1974: Infantile autism, also known as Kanner’s Syndrome, is a controversial disease. Controversy arises over treatment, education, and even the diagnosis of the disease.

by Linda DuVal – Colorado Springs Gazette (Colorado) October 14, 1974

True autism is defined by specific characteristics — characteristics guaranteed to have any mother, babysitter, and even many doctors climbing the wall.

A brochure published by the National Society for Autistic Children describes autism as a “severe disorder of communication and behavior whose disability became manifest during the early development stages of childhood.”

It is characterized by “severe deficits in language ability and behavior and by the lack of ability to relate appropriately to others,” says the society publication. Kanner’s syndrome is called a syndrome because of the specific pattern it follows and the specific symptoms involved. The child is usually not the first born child, but can be.

The child is usually a male and usually has problems sleeping and eating from the first few days on, and eating and sleeping difficulties may plague him for the rest of his life. He often has poor eye contact and seems insensitive to pain.

He may not ever begin speech, but if he does, it will stop abruptly at 18 months of age.

They (autistic children) show no desire to be cuddled or held and they cry a lot, much more than a normal baby.

They exhibit fear of strangers to an extreme degree and may react violently to changes in the environment or routine. They often adopt repetitive movements such as rocking or head-banging. They often tend to walk on their toes.

Autistic children may stop talking at a year-and-a-half, but if they have talked at all will abruptly start up again at age five-and-a-half.

Autistic children have problems with toilet training until a very late age. They have unusual eating habits, and may show a preference for non-food items.

Dr Leo Kanner, who named the disease, feels that nearly all of these symptoms must be present in some degree for a child to be classified autistic. A child who chews on pencils and walks on his tiptoes a lot is not necessarily autistic.

Children afflicted with autism have severely impaired speech, or a complete lack of speech, impaired social relationships, extreme distress reaction to minor changes in environment, are usually retarded in some areas and extremely gifted in others, either don’t react or else over-react to stimulus, are either hyperactive or totally passive, and usually are afflicted at birth.

Autism in the ’70s: What causes it?

There are two fields of thought.

Psychiatrists and psychologists and some medical doctors believe that the affliction is psychogenic — induced mainly by a poor mother-child relationship.

Dr Bernard Rimland of the Institute for Child Behavior Research in San Diego, California, realizes that this is one of two theories that exist.

But he doesn’t believe it.

Dr Rimland has said again and again, as part of the distinguished lecture series offered by the University of Southern California, that autism is a biochemical disorder, not a psychogenic one.

“There are two major competing theories relating to the treatment of children with severe behavior disorders,” he says, “These theories are in sharp conflict, and their implications are very pervasive, since they relate not only to how to remedy the problem, but to what originally caused the disorder, and what the outcome will be.”

He devotes a chapter in his book “Infantile Autism” on the arguments for and against the hypothesis that parents can or do cause behavior disorders, he says.

Dr Rimland has studied the affliction for over a decade, and is continually frustrated, he says, with fighting the devoted “psychogenic” supporters. He has participated in a number of studies which time after time prove that the disorder is biochemical and not mother-caused, he says.

Repeated experiments, on the other hand, to show the affliction as being psychogenic, have failed, he claims.

“The psychogenic position is that the mother is guilty until proven innocent,” says Dr Rimland, “and as you know, all evidence proving her innocence has been studiously ignored.”

Dr Kanner, first to accurately identify true autism, and after whom the disease is now named, checked 36,500 clinical cases of diagnosed autism and found only one true case in that group.

His work is documented and well-known both at the institute and by the national society.

Mrs Sherry Moyers, a Colorado Springs mother of an eight-year-old boy suffering from infantile autism, says that she hears the word misapplied so often, “I couldn’t even begin to correct all the misuses.”

Mrs Moyers, after running into blind alleys for seven years with her son Brad, finally discovered Dr Rimland and the national society and now has most of the support and guidance she needs to help her son, she says.

She is convinced that Brad’s affliction is biochemical because of the dramatic effects that have been seen with vitamin therapy. Brad reacts badly to sugar and behaves better in its absence.

The problem, she explains, is that many autistic children also have hypoglycemia, which can produce a personality change when aggravated by too much sugar.

If the affliction is diagnosed by a doctor who believes its cause to be a biochemical imbalance, vitamin therapy and diet control often is used effectively.

Education is considered and is often successful with the use of operant conditioning and behavior modification, combined with a little firmness, says Dr Rimland.

If the doctor believes the cause to be psychogenic, the first step may be to remove him from the mother’s custody, which can cause a violent reaction in the child. Most react violently to changes in environment.

Autism in the ’70s: Therapies and treatments

A common therapy attempted in that case is called “Z” Therapy, developed by Dr Robert Zaslow.

Dr Zaslow makes his home part-time in Colorado, where he teaches others his technique.

Zaslow’s California license was taken away as the result of a suit brought against him in California. He was found guilty of doing permanent damage to the kidneys of a young woman who was punched instead of “tickled” because she didn’t react to the traditional therapy treatment.

Z Therapy is based on a tickling treatment which is supposed to break through to the autistic child or adult and force him to make eye contact and respond to the person holding him.

Some success has been reported at various facilities that treat the mentally ill, but there have also been reports of its making patients worse.

It is controversial. Controversial enough so that when approached by the local department of social services, Mrs Moyers refused to have Brad treated with Z Therapy. And she had to go to court to make her refusal legitimate.

Mrs Moyers spent seven years trying to get an accurate diagnosis for Brad. She fell back on the findings of an Indiana hospital, who diagnosed it correctly when he was three, but where there was no treatment resulting.

She wrote to the institute in San Diego, and they sent her a form to fill out about Brad. The form was analyzed by a computer, and the diagnosis was made.

After seven years, she got diagnosis and recommendations for treatment from a computer.

“True autism is so specific that if the facts are put into a computer, it can diagnose it correctly,” she explains. She was sent information and the names of persons in Colorado she could contact for help.

Brad now is on vitamins B and C in large doses, and “has responded remarkably” to them, says Mrs Moyers. She also is an active member of the National Society for Autistic Children, and she and her husband are going to try and start a local chapter. She already knows several other parents of autistic children locally, she says.

Autism in the ’70s: Education

The institute in San Diego recommends highly the pursuit of education for autistic children, but “not permissive, unstructured, therapeutic schools — they do not help,” says an institute publication.

Mrs Moyers has had problems getting education for Brad.

“Last year, School District 11 provided about 70 hours of education for Brad,” says Mrs Moyers. She tried to get an improved program for this year, but he is only scheduled for four hours a week — one each on four days.

“He just starts to respond, and he has to leave,” she complains. She adds that she is grateful to the city park and recreation department for including him in the White House Ranch program for handicapped children, where he gets to spend four hours every other Saturday.

She works with him daily, and Brad’s vocabulary is getting larger all the time. She makes him repeat words and ask for what he wants in full sentences.

“I think I’m making progress,” she says uncertainly, then smiles: “I know I am.”

Since many doctors do not know a lot about autism, Mrs Moyers has studied the affliction until she has become something of a “lay expert” on the subject.

“I ought to be, because it’s been my life for the past few years,” she admits.

She feels that Brad may become a musician, since his “real forte is in music,” and she feels that there is hope for other autistic children, especially if they remain with a family who cares about them enough to tolerate them.

“It can be hell, sometimes, and I should know, but I won’t give my son up to an institution where he can wither away,” says Mrs Moyers.

Research still is going on. Some day there may be a chemical to help counter the biochemical imbalance, she says. Until then, she just copes as best she can — as do hundreds of other mothers.

Autistic children await “door of hope” (1975)

Avalanche-Journal (Lubbock, Texas) May 11, 1975

Autistic children await “door of hope” – Disorder weakens ability to relate

Somewhere a child is waiting to be found. He may be sitting listlessly in the corner of a room, his eyes seemingly focused on some other world. Or, he may be thrashing about on the floor, kicking and screaming out his frustrations. But he is waiting, somehow, for a door of hope to open.

The child is suffering from autism, a rare condition characterized by severe problems in communication and behavior and an inability to relate to people in a normal manner.

Autism, or early infantile autism as it once was called, was first described in medical literature during the 1930s, but public awareness of the problem has come about only during the past decade, according to Dr Harold Erickson Jr, associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Texas Tech University School of Medicine.

Surveys have revealed that autism affects about four in every 10,000 children. For some unknown reason, the illness occurs four times more frequently in males than females, Erickson said.

Because of the rarity of the disorder, little is known about the causes of autism. As a result, parents seeking help for an autistic child may be told the child is mentally retarded, emotionally disturbed, brain damaged, suffering from childhood schizophrenia or simply psychotic.

An early theory held that parents of autistic children were cold, distant individuals, dubbed “refrigerator parents,” who caused their child’s disturbance by not giving him the affection a baby needs. Recent research provides little support for such a theory, the Tech psychiatrist said.

Erickson adheres to the theory that defects in portions of a child’s brain have caused autism. A disorder in the thalamus could cause the child to process information differently, he said. “The world that the autistic child experiences is not a consistent, organized one.”

According to the psychiatrist, the autistic child tends to withdraw from the confusion of the world around him.

A disorder in the reticular activating system could cause “a hyper-alertness” in a child. “They have almost a stimulus overload.”

He recalled seeing children who reacted violently when they were touched or covered their ears to shut out the sound of their own laughter.

One of the most striking characteristics of the autistic child is his tendency to be different from other babies, Erickson said.

The mother of one autistic child said her son was a very good baby. As an infant, he cried only when he was hungry. He ate well, perhaps a little too well. And he never demanded attention — he didn’t even like to be held.

His inability to roll over or grasp objects and his disinterest in learning to walk eventually led the mother to wonder what was wrong with her baby. When the boy was 5, he was finally diagnosed as autistic.

The autistic child’s behavior is unusual in many ways. “A lot of times the child doesn’t like to be held. He wants to be left alone,” Erickson said.

“As the baby gets older, he may prefer to play with inanimate objects,” he continued. An autistic child may spend hours sifting sand or stacking blocks.

One of the most common symptoms, according to Erickson, is delayed or absent speech. Some autistic children have no language. Others can say or repeat words but do not talk in the normal sense.

Erickson noted the autistic child’s inability to understand the pronoun “I” as a word standing for himself, instead of saying, “I want a cookie,” the autistic child may say, “cookie.” Later on, he may say, “Johnny wants a cookie.”

Preoccupation with certain things also is a symptom of autism, Erickson said. He once worked with an autistic child who was obsessed with pictures on cereal boxes and collected approximately 100 of them. The pictures “had some special meaning for that child,” he said.

The psychiatrist cited an interest in repetitive activities as another symptom. An autistic child may spend hours watching a dripping faucet or spinning a top.

Such activities may “add a certain amount of order to a disordered system — and therefore it is satisfying to the child,” Erickson explained.

Often, autistic children are believed to be deaf because they do not react to loud noises or respond when they are called. Possibly the autistic child has turned out what he doesn’t want to hear or he may be getting only garbled messages.

Some autistic children show little emotion; others may laugh, cry or throw tantrums for no apparent reasons. Erickson said aggressiveness may be a problem with some of these children. They may try to hit others or throw objects around.

“We’re just beginning to understand what’s going on inside these kids,” he observed.

According to Erickson, the cornerstone for treatment of the autistic child is behavior modification. He said education programs such as the one offered by Lubbock public schools may open the door of hope for some autistics.

With this type of program, Erickson said statistics show that about 25 percent of autistic children will be able to function in fairly normal lives. Although they may be somewhat different from their peers, they should be able to hold down jobs and survive in society.

Such a program should enable another 50 percent of the autistics to live in some type of structured living support situation, such as a sheltered workshop, the psychiatrist noted. According to him, the remaining 25 percent, which would be the severely affected autistic children, probably would require institutional care.

“Without treatment and special education programs, the overall picture is pretty gloomy,” he concluded.

Penetrating “inner world” of autism not easy (1975)

By Mary Alice Diers – Avalanche-Journal (Lubbock, Texas) May 11, 1975

For years, they’ve watched their children growing up, knowing something was wrong — but not knowing what to do about it.

Locked in some inner world, the youngsters have stared blankly at a wall or thrown themselves on the floor in kicking, screaming fits.

Not knowing what was wrong has been the hardest part for many of these parents of autistic children, according to Mrs Richard Steel, mother of an 11-year-old autistic. Until a year ago, many of the parents here did not even know the meaning of autism.

Today, because of a special education class for autistic students, many of them are learning the meaning of hope.

“Now, I feel like I’m living a little like everyone else,” Mrs Steel said. Her son, Andy, has spent most of his life at home with his mother. “He was very dependent on me,” she added.

Before the Steels moved to Lubbock in 1973, they had never seen another child like Andy. The family had moved around a lot, and Andy had been taken to a number of pediatricians. According to Mrs Steel, one Dallas physician told her Andy had autistic behaviors.

Although he has been in training programs much of his life, Andy was never able to attend school. “His bad behavior kept him out of schools,” Andy’s mother explained. “A lot of the communities we’ve been in wouldn’t accept him in school.”

Andy’s big break came when he was accepted at Milam Children’s Training Center here. Mrs Steel commented, “Milam’s helped prepare him for the classroom.”

In October of 1973, the training center referred Mrs Steel to Marianne de Diaz, who was trying to organize the West Texas Chapter of the National Society for Autistic Children. Mrs Diaz provided her literature on autism. “For the first time I felt like I was reading about the behavior Andy had,” Mrs Steel said.

Andy was diagnosed as autistic by Dr Harold Erickson, Jr, child psychiatrist at Texas Tech University School of Medicine.

Mrs Diaz, Mrs Steel and others in the chapter began working to establish a special class for autistics in the Lubbock public schools. The beginning of that class in August of 1974 was the answer to many prayers.

Mrs Steel said, “We’re all thankful Andy has an opportunity for this education.”

The mother noted Andy is responding more to people around him. They youngster is understanding and obeying simple commands. He knows his brothers and sister.

“His tantrums have lessened,” Mrs Steel observed. This is the first year she has had lamps or vases of flowers setting on tables. Once, Andy was likely to throw anything in sight.

Before the class started, Andy had very bizarre eating habits, his mother said. “Now, he eats in the school cafeteria and eats whatever they have.”

Another youngster in the five-member class is Richard Palmer, 9. As a baby, Richard had seemed normal, but he did not develop regular speech, according to his mother, Mrs Wilford Palmer.

After evaluations at Lubbock State School, Richard was placed in training programs at Milam’s and later at Ballenger School. The training he received in these programs and through the autistic class has improved Richard 100 percent, Mrs Palmer said.

Today, Richard spends two and a half hours a day in a regular third grade classroom and the remainder of the school day in the autistic class. Tests show that he is reading on an eight grade level, his mother noted.

And best of all, according to Mrs Palmer, Richard is talking. He is answering questions and is able to communicate his own ideas.

Richard’s parents attend the weekly parent training nights at the school. “They teach you to eliminate undesirable behaviors and to cultivate good ones,” Mrs Palmer explained. “And it really works,” she added, a smile showing her own enthusiasm for the program.

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