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.
Here’s how a newspaper from 1960 described the symptoms — along with mention of the then-standard (and very mistaken) assumption of parental neglect that was believed to cause the syndrome.
“Wooden doll” illness noted at university
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.
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.
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.