Piecing Together the Mystery: A look at the portrayal of autism in the 1940s, 1970s, and today.

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Piecing Together the Mystery:

A look at the portrayal of autism in the 1940s, 1970s, and today.

Autism Spectrum Disorder is a developmental disorder that impacts a broad range of people in many different ways (NIMH 1). Over the past fifty years, there has been a 25-fold increase in the diagnosis of autism; according to the Center for Disease Control, one in forty children in the United States is currently diagnosed with having Autism Spectrum Disorder (Shea Brogren 1). Chances are, each person currently living in the United States knows at least one person who is on the autism spectrum. Because autism is such a relatively new disorder, there are many differing thoughts and opinions on it. The United States popular media certainly has a large part in the overall awareness––and therefore stigma––surrounding it, and the ever-evolving experts’ definitions of it contribute, as well. So, how have portrayals of autism by psychological experts and popular media changed in the United States during three specific decades: 1940s, 1970s, and today?

Portrayals of autism have evolved over time, and as more time passes, the more information there is available about it. However, in its earliest stages, not much was known about autism. But, as more time went on, there was much more knowledge about it. That is why there is a direct correlation with the amount of time after its original definition and the more accurate portrayals of it. During the 1940s, there was very limited information about autism which lead to an overall emphasis on figuring out the main cause of autism; people wanted hard, easy answers. By contrast, in the 1970s, several experts shifted their focus to blaming anyone that they could.  Here, the cause of autism was unknown, however there was a general disinterest in figuring out the cause and an increased interest in figuring out different groups of people to put the blame on for causing these children to have this disorder. Closer to the present, many experts focus on the way in which the media’s portrayal of autism––both in the past and in the present––contribute to the overall stigma surrounding autism. Essentially, today there is a greater focus on the actual treatment of those with autism, which shows a greater amount of understanding and empathy that the general public now has surrounding those with autism. From the 1940s to the present, we can see a general trend where the experts shift from focusing on figuring out the cause of autism in the 1940s, to them trying to place blame onto individual parties in the 1970s, to a general focus on finding proper treatment for those with autism along with an increased awareness of separating the person from the disorder today. These trends helped to create an environment which allowed the overarching stigma surrounding autism to prosper and continue to grow. In this essay I will analyze this relationship and shift in thought.

In 1911, Swiss psychiatrist, Eugen Bleuler, used the word “autism” for the first time ever. He coined the phrase when referring to a group of children that he was studying; “According to Bleuler, autistic thinking was characterized by infantile wishes to avoid unsatisfying realities and replace them with fantasies and hallucinations,” (Evans 1). However, we know today that the children he was studying actually exhibited symptoms of schizophrenia. These two disorders are very different: schizophrenia often causes individuals to suffer from hallucinations, while autism causes individuals to have trouble with “a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication” (Autism Speaks). However, there is a clear relationship between the two disorders in that both cause individuals to have increased trouble with socialization. Although Bleuler’s original diagnosis of autism was very incorrect, it helps point to the bigger idea that there was not a real understanding of this disorder until very recently. This sheds light on the fact that the more time that went by, the more information that came out about autism and all of those affected by it.

While it is known now that autism is not something that a child can be cured of, there was an overall interest with the idea that Autism Spectrum Disorder (herein referred to as ASD) can be cured with proper treatment, especially in the 1940s. In 1943, Doctor Leo Kanner from Johns Hopkins University used the word “autism” for one of the first times since Bleuler. While studying a group of children, he used “autism” to “describe the withdrawn behavior of several children he studied” (Webmd.com). After this broad definition was given, there was an utter obsession with the term “autistic”, and many people––even experts––were using it to over-diagnose and eventually stigmatize ASD. People were obsessed with finding the “cure” to it, and were trying just as hard to figure out where it came from.

Furthermore, it is interesting to note different champions of children with autism, one of the most interesting being that same doctor, Doctor Leo Kanner. At his time, he did not know much about the disorder at all. In fact, he thought it was something easily fixed like how “orthodontists straighten teeth” (TIME, Frosted Children 1). This was most probably not because he was discriminatory against those with autism, rather he simply misunderstood them, and this is very important to understand. Before Kanner provided us with autism’s first definition, there was little to nothing known about it. Kanner attributed these children’s apathy and desire to be alone as the result of their parents being “Cold Perfectionists.” Kanner even went so far as to describe these children as being “kept neatly in a refrigerator which didn’t defrost,” (1). Here, Kanner describes these children with autism as being physically and emotionally “cold” whose parents never gave them the opportunity to “defrost.” Built into his definition of these “frosted children” are his views of just what the cause of autism was: their “cold perfectionist” parents. This is interesting because it shows how early on, even the doctors and advocates for those with autism did not yet fully grasp just what having this disorder meant. Many people thought that autism was something that children were not born with, and even hinted at them being less evolved and matured than those without it. Even though through judgment of these seemingly harsh words Kanner seems like he did not care much for these children at all, this is not entirely the case. Instead, Kanner really thought that what he was talking about and doing for these children was beneficial to them. This is because of the lack of knowledge about ASD during this time: the 1940s.

In 1944, author Gelolo McHugh launched a study to test the validity of an experiment done by Doctor T.V. Moore in the 1920s. In Moore’s study, he concluded that autistic thinking can be described as the “tendency to draw conclusions based on pathological major in the sense of a false premise that has no basis in logical common sense,” (McHugh, 90). Essentially, in Moore’s 1920s study, he stated that children experience autistic tendencies when they are young, but eventually outgrow them, thus linking autism to immaturity. So, McHugh’s 1944 study aimed to test the accuracy of this hypothesis. Her experiment tested whether or not children outgrow these autistic thinking tendencies with age. She asked participants a series of true-or-false questions and separated their results based on their answers and ages. By the end, McHugh, citing Moore, was able to conclude that “there is no evidence to support a conclusion that ‘autistic reasoning is a transitory phenomenon of childhood’” (98). This therefore discredited Moore’s study from about 20 years earlier. This emphasizes how the 1940s was still a time for grasping knowledge about ASD. People were still trying to figure out just what autism was and what having it entailed. While McHugh did not get a lot of information out of this study, she was able to disprove a past study that provided false information. This was a huge step for a study in the 1940s, and shows the continued progress that experts were making in regards to autism.

Next, the ideological shift from the 1940s to the 1970s presents itself. In the 1970s, there was an increased infatuation with finding out who was to blame for children having autism. Two studies in particular, one in 1974 and another in 1977, point to the fact that this decade––the 1970s––was especially interested in finding different parties and places to blame for autism. The 1974 study was conducted by two psychologist researchers, Sara Williams and Juliet Harper. They title their article “A Study of Etiological Factors at Critical Periods of Development in Autistic Children”, and they look at children with autism, who they refer to as “autistic children”, and try to find different factors that would have contributed to the children to “develop” autism at different critical points in their development periods. Williams and Harper list different events that could have contributed to the development of autism, including, “significant separation from mother before two years,” being “exposed to two languages before three years,” their mother having depression, and the “children locked in a room or tied up” (Williams and Harper 94). These two experts were willing to look at a wide variety of different factors that could potentially lead to a child to develop autism; they tried to find places to place the blame. And, while we know today that autism is not something that a person just develops over time, rather it is something that one is born with, these experts did not know this. Instead, they looked at a number of different places that could potentially lead to an ultimate cause of autism.

The Society for Science and the Public posted an edition of Science News on March 12, 1977 with an article titled, “Autism: Insights into the Causes.” This article begins by flat out discrediting the theory that poor parenting is to blame for children having autism––a claim, more or less, made just months later by the same magazine, which will be examined later. This article explains a study that looked at the genetic predisposition of children with autism. The researchers point to a past study that gave results that “suggest than an inherited cognitive abnormality can cause autism in some instance, that brain damage at birth can cause it in others, or that both factors can conspire together to trigger the disease,” (Science News 167). This article looks into different places on which the blame for autism can be placed. This is not rare for this time period, where many other people were looking to find places to do just this. Additionally, this was a rather large stride in that this was one of the first studies to look at the genetic factors that contribute to a child having autism whilst discrediting theories that arose in the past such as “bad parenting” as a factor. While they did not necessarily mean any harm in either of these articles, they both further prove that the 1970s as a whole was a decade where researchers were especially interested in finding where to place the blame for children having autism.

However, not everyone was making the same amount of progress. While there were a lot of major strides made toward finding a more accurate definition of autism, there were many steps taken back, as well. In December of 1977, the Society for Science and the Public published an edition of Science News magazine with an article titled, “Mother-to-be’s Anxiety Linked to Autism”. The article begins with the very matter-of-fact statement, “Although [autism’s] first signs–– rejection of close contact with the mother–– appear in early infancy…” (374). This article already begins with a fallacy, but it highlights the fact that there was still so little known about autism. However, the general trend of this time period is the fact that so many people, even including the expert psychologists, were willing and eager to place the blame onto any party they could. So, this article chooses to blame the pregnant mother-to-be and her anxiety levels. Here, Ward, the researcher who conducted this experiment, concludes that out of the women studied, 32% of them experienced “marital discord.” He defined such discord as “‘interference in family functioning by a previous husband’”; “‘feeling ‘in-sane’”’; or having “‘frequent arguments.’” (374). Even though he later explains that only 3% of these mothers experienced this while they were actually pregnant, he continues with the article. One would think that this aforementioned fact would be enough to make Ward end the experiment altogether because it would discredit the article’s accuracy––3% of the population that he studied actually supported his argument. However, Ward continued with the study and continued to publish it in a science magazine. So, all those who read this magazine take his experiment to be hard, true facts. This was and still is incredibly dangerous to the autism community as it takes it back so many steps. None of this evidence was enough to be convincing, but he carried on with it anyway.

Additionally, as the article continues, it continues to place the blame of autism on the mothers, even though there was no evidence to prove that Ward’s original claim was correct. Ward refers to mothers of children with autism as “autistic mothers”, and explains, “more than twice as many ‘autistic’ mothers as controls were diagnosed as having a psychiatric problem,” (374). He also went on to say that “several of the control mothers who separated from their husbands during pregnancy suffered no apparent emotional conflict. But all six of the autistic group who separated were emotionally affected,” (374). These two pieces are especially interesting to analyze. The first piece highlights the fact that Ward places the blame of autism onto the mother’s for having one “psychiatric problem” or another and it was published in a well-known magazine for people to take as a fact. This shows the readiness so many people had to place the blame on anyone they could, even if they were incorrect in doing so. Then, he follows that up with him more or less equating these mothers being unmarried with them having psychiatric problems. As if insinuating that a mother who is unmarried most probably has psychiatric problems is not bad enough, Ward does just that without any clear evidence that it even was a factor. I argue that Ward piles on words, which confuses readers, because he wants to distract people from the fact that the evidence he provides, which he conveniently gives out in bullet points to make it easy for readers to quickly skim, are not backed up with real evidence. Again, Ward explains that “six of the autistic group [mothers] who were separated [in marriage] were emotionally affected” (374). However, this did not take into account at all the emotional toll that being the parent to a child with autism takes on a parent, and also does not take into account the emotional toll that getting divorced has on a mother. Instead, Ward chooses to put those facts aside in order to most easily and conveniently for him place the blame on the easiest party he can find: the mothers. In this article, Ward uses only the evidence that helps to prove his argument, and completely tosses aside any and all of the evidence that could potentially be used to discredit his overarching claim. This shows how people quickly became more willing to point their fingers and place the blame on people for this disorder, even though it was and is entirely out of control. This also points to the complete misunderstanding of autism at this time, even though it had been defined more than thirty years earlier.

Shifting to today, there is a desire to get those with autism the proper treatment that will enable them to live their best lives. While in the 1940s, 1970s, and years in between, many people thought that with the right treatment autism could be cured, it is widely known today that there is no possible way to “cure” someone of autism. Therefore, today, experts highlight the importance of finding the right treatment that is specific to each person. Each person is unique, and their treatment should reflect that. Experts, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, emphasize the importance of early childhood intervention. They explain that such services, “include therapy to help the child talk, walk, and interact with others.” (CDC 1). They also list different therapy options, that include, but are not limited to, Applied Behavior Analysis, which “encourages positive behaviors and discourages negative behaviors in order to improve a variety of skills,” occupational therapy to “help the person live as independently as possible…” by helping them with “dressing, eating, bathing, and relating to people”, and sensory integration therapy which “helps the person deal with sensory information, like sights, sounds, and smells… [it] could help a child who is bothered by certain sounds or does not like to be touched,” (2). Overall, the emphasis on different treatment methods highlights the fact that today, finding proper treatment for those with autism is of utmost importance to people today, whereas in years past many people were still stuck on finding ways to “cure” someone of autism.

Additionally, there is a great emphasis on understanding the impact that words can have when describing a person with autism. Many advocates for those with autism have coined and advocated for the term “identity-first language,” while many others have advocated for the “person-first” language. Identity-first language refers to the calling of those with autism an “autistic person”, and person-first language calls them a “person with autism.” One study conducted by Northeastern University explains that, “the choice recognizes that a human is first and foremost a person: They have a disorder, but that disorder doesn’t define them. For people who prefer identity-first language, the choice is about empowerment. It says that autism isn’t something to be ashamed of.” (Molly Callahan 2). While there is some argument surrounding this ideology, one thing mostly everyone can agree on is the general rejection to calling people “retarded.” Callahan explains that most people agree that that term, and some others, are generally “dehumanizing” and not at all acceptable in today’s society. This points to the shift in society that is seen today, where many people are trying to look past the disability and into the person; understanding that the person is more than just their disability.

A graphic to help understand the “identity-first” type of language.
A graphic to help understand the “person-first” language.

Also, many people look into the ways in which media’s portrayal of autism plays a role in the general public’s overall understanding of autism. An article published by the Los Angeles Times written by author Joy Resmovits titled, “Why Sesame Street’s new character isn’t representative of most kids with autism” critically looks at the children’s show’s addition of a character with autism. In the show, a girl, Julia, was introduced, and this author was critical of the fact that she was a girl. Resmovits explains that, “about five times as many boys as girls are diagnosed with autism,” so, “if Sesame… were truly interested in representing autism most accurately, wouldn’t its new character be a boy?” (Resmovits 1). Sesame Street’s Vice President explained the rationale by explaining that because boys are more likely to have autism than girls, their goal was “to make it clear that girls can be on the spectrum, too…” she explains, “we’re trying to eliminate misconceptions, and a lot of people think that only boys have autism,” (2). While there is not room to analyze which side of the argument is correct, this is interesting to look at because it shows the huge shift over the past several decades. In the 1940s and 1970s, this debate would not have taken place because people at those times were so caught up in finding cures and placing blame onto others. Today, we have moved past that, and that has allowed us to take a step back and think about things that really matter: acceptance and understanding.

Therefore, it is important to also look at the United States popular media’s portrayal of autism over time. To begin looking at this aspect, one should begin with the frequency in which it is even mentioned in the media. Two experts’, Muhamad and Yang’s, 2017 study looked at 413 total news articles about autism and found that 186 of them (45%) were on the front page. Additionally, the study notes that there “is a strong presence of the ‘burden’ label” in an overwhelming amount of these articles which therefore “further divides communities.” (Muhamad and Yang, Framing Autism 195). Also, the article notes that this “blame-placing” is extremely detrimental as it places the blame on certain parties who are in no way in control which therefore takes away “services, resources, [and] research funding” from those who are in need of it the most (195). This article does not find it surprising that media and news sources such as the ones that they studied place the blame of this disorder on a certain group or individual; it is simply easier to do this. This study is significant because it introduces the idea of autism in the media. The fact that autism was only featured 45% of the time on the front page alludes to the fact that talking about autism is still considered “taboo”, which therefore allows for there to still be a stigma surrounding ASD.

To eliminate such stigma, many people turn to the power of the popular media, in particular television shows and movies. Researchers Christina Belcher and Kimberly Maich wrote an article that looks at the representation of characters with autism. In their article, they look at twenty children’s books, movies, novels, and television shows and analyze how characters with autism are portrayed in each. Throughout the study, numerous different media platforms are thoroughly analyzed. At the end, Belcher and Maich conclude that “results show that television characters with ASD tend to be portrayed as intellectually stimulating geniuses who make us aspire to be like them; movies tend to show those with ASD as heroes… novels tend to present ASD in a complex, authentic context of family and community, rife with everyday problems; picture books appear to be moving towards a clinical presentation of ASD,” (Brock Education 97). All of these findings are significant in their own ways. Belcher and Maich note that, “generally, television, movies, and novels… entertain and have ASD as an area of interest,” which is why it makes sense that they portray ASD in such a heroic way and as people who we often aspire to be like (111). Likewise, the more clinical representation in children’s books “is significant because they form part of teaching and learning away from parental or civic input when used in the classroom,” (111). Belcher and Maich make it a point to put a disclaimer at the end that states, “In learning [about autism] from various media, we can extend or absorb valid, false, or exaggerated perspectives about realities and misrepresentation of ASD; therefore, careful choice-making and in-depth critique is essential to utilize the engaging and instructional features of mass media to develop and authentic understanding,” (109). Belcher and Maich understand the impact that popular media has on people, and they show the difference in portrayals of autism across different media outlets.

Additionally, one study looks into the fact that the there has been an increase in “consumer selection of non-scientifically supported treatments [for autism],” (K. A. Schreck et al 300). Here, Schreck, Russell, and Vargas look into the idea that said increase is linked to “celebrities’ and prominent professionals’ testimonials, consumers’ a priori beliefs, and the lack of easily understood decision-making guides,” (300). They explain that “journalists from the top five circulated newspapers and magazines in the United States devoted less than one quarter of their statements about autism treatment to discussions about ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis),” and “prestigious newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal, Daily News, and USA Today reported about non-scientifically supported treatments 97-100% of their coverage,” (316). These findings make evident that there is a direct correlation between information given out in popular media and people’s actions as a result of it. This is clear because the uptick in the selection of non-scientifically supported treatments is positively correlated with the fact that the United States’ most prestigious newspapers talk about those treatments 97-100% of the time. This shows the importance of popular media in relation to autism in this country.

Therefore, because this evidence is available now, it is safe to say that this was also the case in the 1940s and 1970s. In those two decades, the rhetoric used to talk about autism and the ways in which autism was portrayed impacted the general public’s understanding of it and the ways in which they treated it. In the 1940s, there was still not much information about autism, which is evident by the utter lack of understanding about it; people were still trying to figure out just what autism was. In the 1970s, experts in particular were less concerned about finding out the causes of autism, and instead shifted their focus to finding new parties to blame for its presence in children. And, today, there is a newfound emphasis on separating the person from the disorder and finding the proper treatment, all with the knowledge that autism is not something that a person can be “cured” of. Therefore, it is easy to see that all of these factors influenced and still influence the popular media’s changing portrayal of autism throughout time, specifically in the 1940s, 1970s, and today, which therefore created an environment that fostered and allowed the overarching stigma surrounding autism to present itself. Erasing the stigma surrounding autism is not and will not be an easy feat, but by understanding the media’s effect on our perception of autism, we are one step closer to defeating it.


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