A Singular World View
Children with autism were described as early as 1908 by Heller, a Viennese educator. Autism was not named and identified as a distinct condition until 1943. That year American psychiatrist Leo Kanner wrote about what he called "infantile autism." Kanner derived the term autism from the Latin word aut, meaning self. Kanner described a group of children who looked normal but showed limited communication skills and were drawn to repetitive behavior. Researchers have since discovered that the disorder is not common, occurring in two to five of every 10,000 births. The disorder is more common in males than in females.
As many as two-thirds of children with autistic symptoms are mentally deficient. But individuals with autism can be highly intelligent. Some achieve great levels of success at school and at work. The term autism is more a description of a range of behavioral traits than a term to describe a single type of person with a single level of potential.
Autistic individuals generally share a defect in "the theory of mind." This term is used to describe the way normal individuals develop a sense of what others are thinking and feeling. This sense is usually developed by about age four. Autistic individuals typically are limited in their ability to communicate nonverbally and verbally. About half of all autistic people never learn to speak. They are likely to fail in developing social relationships with peers, have limited ability to initiate conversation if they do learn how to talk, and show a need for routines and rituals.
The range of ability and intelligence among autistic individuals is great. Some individuals are profoundly withdrawn. These aloof individuals generally do not greet parents when they enter the house or seek comfort when in pain. Others can conduct a conversation but may be obsessed with strange or unusual behaviors, such as a fascination with calendars or timetables. Still others use their ability to focus on particular bodies of fact to master a job or a profession. Temple Grandin is a Ph.D. and a successful animal behavior expert who is autistic and an international expert in her field.
Certain autistic people have areas of expertise in which they are superior to normal individuals. These skills are called savant abilities and have been well documented in music, drawing, and areas where calculation is involved. The vibrant drawings of buildings by autistic British artist Stephen Wiltshire have been published to great acclaim.