History of Special Education for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Instructor: Frank Clint

Frank has been an educator for over 10 years. He has a doctorate degree in education with a concentration in curriculum and instruction.

What is the history of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and how does it affect schools? This lesson provides an overview of the historical and philosophical milestones of special education for students with autism.

Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) describes a range of disorders related to neurodevelopment. Some common traits are:

  • Social behavior issues
  • Repeated behavior patterns
  • Issues with verbal communication

Autism Society of America

Autism was first called developmental retardation by Dr. John Langdon Down in 1887. He was the first to describe Down's syndrome, study mental retardation, and study and describe behaviors that we know as autism today. With time, autism was believed to be a symptom of schizophrenia and also a result of a child's relationship with a parent. Specifically, it was believed that a mother who was not very warm and loving toward her child caused a child to be autistic.

The father of a child with autism, Bernard Rimland, argued that this was not the case. He advocated against this theory and made an argument to show that the relationship between a child and a parent has nothing to do with autism. Through his work, he founded the Autism Society of America for parents.

TEACCH Program

Dr. Eric Schopler started the Treatment and Education of Autistic and Related Communication Handicapped Children (TEACCH) program in 1972. The purpose was to provide training and other programs for people with autism. Most notably, the program offers TEACCH certification, which gives professionals a variety of strategies based on the 'Structured TEACCHing' approach. Strategies center around the autistic individual's unique learning, social, and cognitive strengths as well as challenges.

Today, the TEACCH program continues at the University of North Carolina. Those on the autism spectrum, along with their families and professionals who work with autistic people, can receive training and services from the program. Some of the programs include parent support and consultation for teachers.

Autism and Asperger's

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) has long been a reference used by mental health professionals. In 1980, doctors finally were able to differentiate autism from schizophrenia when the DSM-III added the disorder under the phrase infantile autism and seven years later as autistic disorder. The federal government made autism a special education category in 1991, which allowed schools to identify and help autistic students.

Pervasive developmental disorder referred to disorders that involve developmental delays specifically around socialization and communication. This included Asperger's syndrome, which is often referred to as a form of higher functioning autism due to a person's ability to function at a higher cognitive level but lack adequate social functioning. Pervasive developmental disorder and Asperger's syndrome were added to the DSM-IV in 1994 .

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