What did people think of autism in the 1960s? Here’s a look back at some of the attempts to understand

Note: This article may feature affiliate links to Amazon or other companies, and purchases made via these links may earn us a small commission at no additional cost to you. Find out more here.

Autistic boy looking at school through a fence
While the term “early infantile autism” was first coined by Dr Leo Kanner of the Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1943, for decades beyond that, autism was still a largely unknown phenomenon outside of the medical profession.

First up is an article showing how a newspaper from 1960 described autistic symptoms — along with mention of the then-standard (and very mistaken) assumption of parental neglect that was believed to cause the syndrome.

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.

“Wooden doll” illness noted at university (1960)

The Valley News (Van Nuys, California) October 7, 1960

A recently recognized type of emotional illness characterized by “animated wooden doll” behavior and computer-like mental processes strikes in infancy.

Dr Herbert H Eveloff, a psychiatrist at the University of California Medical School, Los Angeles, described the disorder, “early infantile autism,” in a recent issue of AMA Archives of General Psychiatry.

Mostly preoccupied

The disorder begins in the first one-half to one year of life. The child almost never smiles, but maintains a dazed expression, giving the appearance of an animated wooden doll.

ALSO SEE  What did people think of autism in the 1960s? Here's a look back at some of the attempts to understand

He is mostly preoccupied with objects. Except when he chooses to make contact to get something, he seems completely unaware of others, including his parents. He even seems unable to distinguish his own body from others, and in anger may pinch himself apparently without feeling it.

May parrot words

Later, he may begin to parrot words and phrases, which seem to have no meaning to him and communicate nothing. However, his intelligence in other respects may even appear exceptional. Such children often have the ability to store many items in their memory and recall them, computer-like, but will not be able to integrate them in meaningful behavior.

Parents of such children usually sufferer from emotional difficulties themselves and characteristically have rejected and isolated the children from a remarkable degree since birth.

Recent case described

This suggests environmental factors may be largely responsible for the disorder, Dr Eveloff said.

He described a recent case as the “end-result of two generations of frozen existence in emotional Antarctica.” In this case, the maternal grandmother either did not communicate a feeling of love to her daughter, nor the daughter, in turn to her child, know how to or was unable to the patient.

Antique wooden dolls


Here’s where people started to realize that autism didn’t affect kids because of “refrigerator mothers” (as in cold, unfeeling parenting methods).

Our favorite line: “We know of no earthly reason to believe that autism is a symptom of emotional disturbance stemming from the parents’ attitudes or their handling of the child.”

Autistic child’s mom offered therapy (1963)

by Frances L Ilg, MD, and Louise Bates Ames, PhD, from the Gessel Institute of Child Development  – as published in the Chronicle Telegram (Elyria, Ohio) April 1, 1963

The question

Dear Doctors: Our 3-1/2 year-old son Teddy has been diagnosed as autistic. I have been sending him to a nursery school attached to a local child guidance clinic. These people tell me that autism is not a condition in itself, but rather a symptom of emotional disturbances caused by the parents’ attitudes to the child and their handling of him.

I don’t agree. I think he behaves in this abnormal way because of his inborn personality structure, and our family doctor agrees with me.

Nevertheless, I have been willing to go along with the clinic program of psychotherapy, which explores my childhood and my relations to those around me, just so he can go to the nursery school. However, since the clinic is so busy with my childhood, they never give me any help about Teddy. Can you give me a little information about autism?

1963 Pretty mother with her toddler son - autism

The experts answer

A well-run nursery school can do a world of good for almost any autistic child, if he can adjust to it. You’re being realistic — and a marvel of patience — to undertake the psychotherapy required in order to assure your child a place in the group.

In our opinion, the advice you’re getting is 100 percent wrong.

We know of no earthly reason to believe that autism is a symptom of emotional disturbance stemming from the parents’ attitudes or their handling of the child. Handling can make things worse, to be sure — but only in a secondary way.

We don’t think exploring your own childhood relationships with your mother, father, sisters or brothers is useful or important to your handling of Teddy or your understanding of him.

Dr Leo Kanner of Johns Hopkins University and other authorities on autism make it quite clear that autism is a condition of personality, resulting from the kind of structure a child is born with. You and your doctor both seem to realize this.

You don’t make a child autistic by treating him coldly. An autistic child seems to be born without a normal ability to understand and respond to the approaches of others.

He doesn’t lack a sense of self because you don’t love him; he lacks it as some other child is color blind, or tone deaf. As one mother of an autistic child touchingly put it, “He rejected us long before we rejected him.”

Many authorities consider autism to be not unlike the psychosis called schizophrenia. The disturbance is often milder, however, and hopes for the future are often brighter.

Many autistic children grow up to lead relatively normal, independent lives. Many marry and have children.

Success in toilet training and response to discipline (which you ask about) usually come in during the late preschool years.

These children are by no means all slow intellectually. Many go on to do well, even brilliantly, in school. But most seem to have to learn how to make the personal responses that come to other people as naturally as breathing.


This short newspaper article from 1967, while very general, is actually quite consistent with many of today’s perspectives on autism. Mainstream recognition of the disorder was still more than three decades off, but stories like this were important in paving the way toward helping understand these very different, and quite amazing, minds.

Dec 22, 1961 mother homemaker with twins

Bizarre withdrawal symptoms mark infantile autism cases (1967)

by William G Patrick, Tribune Medical Editor – Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, Utah) March 17, 1967

“The Child in the Glass Ball.”

This is the title of a book published recently in Sweden, which tells about the child with infantile autism — a strange condition that causes him to draw within a shell or behind an invisible wall.

He has many bizarre symptoms, which were described at the University of Utah Medical Center by one of the country’s leading authorities on autism.

He is Dr Bernard Rimland, director, US Navy Personnel Measurement Laboratory, San Diego, and faculty member of San Diego State College.

Not psychotic

The autistic child is neither psychotic nor mentally retarded, although his parents may suspect he is. He is almost invariably healthy and “beautiful looking,” Dr Rimland said.

Virtually without exception, the parents of autistic children are persons of superior intellectual achievement. Some autistic children have spontaneous recoveries and become outstanding adults. Many do not.

Dr Rimland said the usual forms of psychiatry don’t help, although some children are helped by “operant conditioning” — changing behavior patterns by a system of reward and punishment.

Some over-stimulated

Dr Rimland said autistic infants fall into two general groups. Some are “hyper alert,” over-stimulated. Others lie in an inert way, and at first mothers think they are such good babies.

At about four months, parents realize something is wrong. Between four [months] and 18 months, crib-rocking starts, and may be so violent the child may bruise himself. Or he may spend hours in a jump chair, going violently up and down. After that, he starts just staring into space.

Dr Rimland said these are some of the other symptoms shown by autistic children: They have feeding idiosyncrasies. Some will have only milk; others won’t touch it. They have a preoccupation with mechanical things, all the household appliances and gadgets. They have good memories, but cannot draw deductions from things they have read.

Some are mute

An autistic child has been known to read a page of an encyclopedia, and then repeat it word for word, but he could not discuss what he had read. So-called “idiot savants” are believed to have been autistic children.

Some autistic children are mute, and they have the worst outlook for recovery. If a child has speech at age 5-1/2 — the age at which behavior seems to change — the possibility of becoming normal is best, the speaker explained.

Dr Rimland said autism occurs four times as frequently in boys as in girls, and seldom is there more than one autistic child in a family, unless there are identical twins.


Autistic youngsters are children living in shells (1967)

by Robert Shields, London Observer via Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, Utah) February 12, 1967

“Alan behaves as though other people don’t exist. He shows no affection to anyone, always plays alone (if you call it play), and when he does talk, he refers to himself in the third person.

“Objects are most valuable to him if he can make them spin or if they are small enough to pick up and drop, over and over again. He seems happy, too, when pouring water from one container to another. This activity will occupy him for hours.

Climbing on fences

“He is unafraid of things that would make an ordinary child nervous, like climbing dangerously on furniture or fences. On the other hand, he easily flies into a panic or fury if his daily routine is disturbed in any way.

“Alan moves awkwardly, sometimes like a puppet. Despite these peculiarities, the psychologist says he is of above-average intelligence.”

The mother who made these quotes about her 6-year-old knows that he is an autistic child.

What did people think of autism in the 1960s - Kids with glases

Developed normally

He was, she says, an exceptionally good baby, and, as far as she could see, he developed normally during his first three years. Then he gradually deteriorated and became increasingly withdrawn. He has just been found a place in a unit for autistic children.

In recent years autism, a very severe form of mental illness in children, which affects four times as many boys as girls, has been the subject of intense study and debate.

It still remains a mystery, and despite all that medical, educational and psychological research has to offer, the majority of autistic children face a bleak and emotionally crippled future.

It’s deeply affecting

It is a deeply affecting experience to watch a group of these children, who so often are exceptionally beautiful and well-built.

Though in close proximity, they ignore one another, each locked in silence, or constantly repeating some apparently meaningless phrase, or carrying out over and over again a particular gesture or action which has significance only for him.

If you smile at one of them the smile is not returned; if you say something it seems not to be understood. There is no place for others in the private world the autistic child occupies.

Autism - boy at vintage school

Autism research dates from 1930s

Mental illness in children is not a new phenomenon, although systematic research into autism only dates from the 1930s. Three American psychiatrists — Drs Lauretta Bender, Margaret Mahler and Leo Kanner — have spearheaded this research.

They disagree on a number of points, but they are at one in thinking that the psychotic child is not as much withdrawn as “alone.” Alone in the sense that each autistic lives in an inner secret and frightening world into which he dare not let others intrude.

The autistic child holds this personal world together precariously, just this side of uncontrollable panic. Many of his repetitious actions appear to be a kind of magical preoccupation aimed at keeping others out and preserving the thin walls of self-defense.

It is because the small patient dreads the breakdown of his insecure inner world that he is so easily distressed by any change in his environment. Inanimate objects are, for him, much safer than people because they do not behave unpredictably, they make no demands and can be manipulated without difficulty.

If you pick up and then drop a toy brick, it will always fall in much the same way. If you pour water from one jar to another, much the same thing happens every time. You have control. There is nothing to be frightened of.

Educationists and clinicians who have worked closely with this type of child are generally agreed that he constantly fears that if his magical but tenuous hold on the object-world were to break down he would disintegrate or be annihilated.

How do these unfortunate children become ill in the first place? How do they come to lose, or never fully gain, the knack of enjoying themselves in the real world of loving parents, of brothers and sisters?

What did people think of autism in the 1960s

No answers yet

No one as yet has advanced a fulling convincing answer. Early workers in the field tended to link the illness with one single cause, but recent research would seem to suggest a combination of factors. A number of specialists think that the unknown factor may be pseudo-maturity.

There is evidence to show that children who later become autistic often reveal in earliest infancy unusual sensitivity and emotional vulnerability.

Such children man, for a variety of reasons (and inadequate maternal care is often mentioned), become too mature too quickly. If this happens the personality may lack the strength and resilience of the normal child’s; and, should he then be faced with a stressful situation, or crisis of some kind, he may retreat into an autistic type of existence.

Dr John Bowlby in England and Margaret Ribble in America have separately demonstrated that, to be emotionally healthy, the infant needs a warm, responsive, intimate and continuously loving relationship with his mother or mother-substitute.

Many clinicians and research psychologists who have worked with autistic children and their families, while not suggesting that the autistic child was rejected by his parents in the conventional sense, have found that the mother-child relationship has often proved to be unusual.

If you liked this post, please share it! You can also get our free newsletter, follow us on Facebook & Pinterest, plus see exclusive retro-inspired products in our shop. Thanks for visiting!

More stories you might like

Check out our books!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Because the fun never ends:

Join the fun

Don’t miss out on the latest and greatest vintage stuff!

Sign up for our free weekly newsletter here.