Social Studies of Autism


Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterised by socio‐communicative impairments and restricted interests and repetitive behaviours. While autism is today diagnosed in approximately 1 in 100 children, and retrospectively observed throughout history, it was described for the first time only in the 1940s and seen only rarely until more recently still. Broad social, and specific scientific, developments led to the contemporary form and shape of autism. Social developments include the advent of psychology, the onset of compulsory education and the widespread deinstitutionalisation that occurred in the 1960s. Consideration of scientific change is centred on the move away from psychoanalytic concepts and towards the methods of biology and cognitive psychology. These changes are placed into dialogue with the self‐advocacy movement and consideration of the ethical and conceptual challenges that these movements have ushered in.

Key Concepts

  • Autism is understood as a neurodevelopmental disorder. This means that autism is a lifelong condition, diagnosable from childhood, which primarily affects the brain.
  • Autism was first described comparatively recently – in 1943 – and the believed cause, symptoms and prevalence of the condition have altered significantly since this point. This suggests that certain social and scientific developments were required to make autism thinkable.
  • The emergence of the psy‐disciplines, which claimed expertise over the mind, and compulsory education, which made children visible to society, were of importance to an early recognition of autism.
  • Widespread deinstitutionalisation in the 1960s – where individuals were moved from hospitals and asylums into the community – made the social impairments associated with autism increasingly visible and significant.
  • Psychoanalytical methods – which place emphasis upon detailed analysis of individual patients – were largely supplanted by statistical methods in the mid‐twentieth century. This methodological change was associated with significant changes in core autism symptomology.
  • A further, crucial change has been the importance of self‐advocacy groups. These groups have contested the claim that autism is a form of disability and instead argued that it is a form of difference.

Keywords: autism; history of the human sciences; neurodiversity; bioethics; disability studies; psychoanalysis; psychology; neuroscience; genetics


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Further Reading

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Hollin, Gregory JS(Jul 2016) Social Studies of Autism. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0026603]