The History of Secondary Histories of Autism

Over the next few months I’ll be reviewing some secondary history texts, so firstly I’ll outline a brief history of the secondary history. I’m only counting work written from 1980 onwards, since this is when the major steps towards our modern autism started (for earlier histories see some of Kanner’s and Eisenberg’s texts). All texts I refer to below are listed here:

The earliest histories were written by medical practitioners. Sanua (1983) has other agendas than strictly writing a history but he gives an excellent account of the relationship between autism and childhood schizophrenia. Lorna Wing (1997) describes the basics but focuses too much on Kanner and Asperger, though I think her understanding of Kanner is more nuanced that some historians claim. Wolff (2004) is brief and also focuses too heavily on Kanner and Asperger, though she does give a good account of her own work.

The watershed came with Nadesan (2005). This was the first book length history of autism, additionally, it was written by someone who was not a medical practitioner, by someone who is not an important historical figure, unlike Wing and Wolff. Nadesan discusses of concepts of child development prior to autism and discuss how concepts of autism change over time due to changing theories in psychology, also giving wider cultural context to why those theories in psychology changed. Whilst not perfect the book was a massive step forward.

Except for Grinker (2007) (who is worth reading but is not primarily intending to write history), there was a major gap of four years between Nadesan’s book until what I call the first golden age started. 2010 saw books by Feinstein (2010) and Eyal et al (2010). Feinstein interviewed many historical figures whilst Eyal et al described in great detail the wider socio-medical changes and how this impacted concepts and classifications. 2010 also saw Jacobsen’s (2010) article which compared Kanner with Bettelheim and relates their work to modern autism. The next major publication was Silverman’s (2012) book. I believe her book is the least ground breaking of the four history of autism books, covering less new material than the others, but I believe it the most well developed and factually accurate. 2013 saw ground breaking articles by Verheoff (2013) and Evans (2013), both describing how wider theoretical changes in psychiatry influenced the changes to the classification. 2014 saw Evans (2014) provide background to 1950s and 1960s British psychiatry whilst Hollin (2014) and Verhoeff (2014) are the first history papers to cover beyond the 1980s in detail. I’ve missed out Neumärker (2003), Silverman (2010), Blacher & Christensen (2011) and Raz (2014) because they are very specific in their focus, though they are all still worth reading.

So far, to my knowledge, at time of writing (July), there has only been one secondary history publication in 2015 (my own, Fellowes (2015)). Perhaps the first golden age has ended. Alternatively, perhaps the second half of 2015 will see many publications; another of my articles will be submitted soon and Bonnie Evans’ book is due out in 2015. The history of autism has come far, especially since 2010, and I personally can identify many areas not yet covered. From where I sit, a continued stream of publications seems more likely than the field dying at this point – existing texts have raised many questions and it will be historians who read those secondary histories published during this first golden age who will produce the next wave of research.

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