Science and Autism: History of Autism Therapy

Autism has been widely misunderstood for much of its recorded history.  Misconceptions about the disorder have led to a variety of therapies that, on the whole, have been ineffective at alleviating symptoms of the disorder.

The first written record of autism comes from Switzerland, where a psychiatrist named Eugen Bleuler used autism to describe a group of symptoms that were traditionally thought to be associated with schizophrenia. As the causes of autism were unknown, the first therapies were intense and radical. Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), where electrical impulses are used to intentionally cause a seizure was used as the earliest form of treatment. The seizures are supposed to affect the brain chemistry of the patient, decreasing self-destructive behavior and agitation. ECT is still used today as a treatment for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, though not for autism. It is now known that autism is unrelated to these disorders.

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Gluten-free and casein-free diets were used as one of the earliest methods to treat autism. These diets still persist in treatment today.

Changing a child’s diet was another early therapy for autism. It was thought that toxins in a child’s diet may have caused autism. Special diets still persist in current therapies. Presently, diets for autistic patients include gluten-free and casein-free foods.

Autism was widely thought to be a behavioral disorder until the late 1970’s, and so treatments up until that point attempted to correct behavior. Behavior therapies included aversive punishment, in which a child is punished for bad behavior. In turn, the child is meant to associate this punishment with the behavior, curbing the behavior altogether. The punishment administered was a shock at a level that would stop the behavior but not prove dangerous to the child. Though the therapy stopped unwanted behaviors, the FDA has proposed a ban on aversive punishment (as of 2016) because of ethical concerns.

Another therapy introduced in the 1970’s was Auditory Integration Therapy, or AIT. It was not widely popularized until the early 1990’s, when a mother published a book claiming it ‘cured’ her child’s autism. The therapy is based on the premise that aggressive behaviors are caused by sound hypersensitivity. By playing randomly interspersed sounds for short sessions over a few days, the child would become used to loud or unexpected noises and aggressive behavior would cease. There is no empirical evidence to suggest that this therapy has any positive effect on unwanted behavior.

The newest advancements in chemistry have provided psychopharmatherapies for people with autism. A number of different drugs have been used to treat symptoms of autism. Though there are benefits in using medication for symptoms of autism, each drug has its own side effects, some of which are significant. These side effects include extreme behavior, decreased impulse control, extreme weight gain, and involuntary muscle movement, among others. Medication can be recommended to control behavioral symptoms of autism, and can be combined with other kinds of treatment such as behavioral therapy.

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Applied Behavioral Analysis is used to reinforce good behavior through techniques such as positive reinforcement.

Behavioral therapy emerged in the late 1980’s when the diagnostic criterion of autism expanded. It is the most successful therapy for autism based on evidentiary findings. A form of behavioral therapy, Applied Behavior Analysis, stands today as the most widely-used therapy in the field.


It has certainly been a long road to develop the current therapies we have for autism. As we learn more about the brain and autism, we can only hope our therapies will give us the ability to help autistic people even more.



Source: Applied Behavioral Analysis Programs: History of Autism Treatment



  1. Jessie Clatterbuck says:

    I enjoyed reading this blog post because it expels the myth that medication is the most effective and efficient “treatment” for ASD. While it may be simpler, this blog seems to emphasize the effectiveness of behavioral therapy to reinforce good behavior. I think in kids especially, it is wise to at least use behavioral therapy to some extent – rather than prescribing pills as the first or sole course of action. However, we do live in a medication-driven society, which makes it important to spread awareness about the history of autism therapies and their effectiveness.

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