How autism was described in the 1970s: Easy to define, hard to pinpoint

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Sister and brother playing with dollhouse

Autism definition specific, but tough to pinpoint

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

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.”

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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.

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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.

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