The word autism has only been in use for around a century, but has only really been understood for the last twenty or so. And in fact there are still changes being made to the way people are being diagnosed.
It is acknowledged that the parents of autistic people might be autistic themselves, but what about going back further, to the time of the old institutions, and general ignorance around anything to do with the mind: Grandparents, Great-Grandparents, people hundreds of years ago? How far back in people`s family trees does autism go?
Some people say that they recognise the signs of autism in their Grandparents, or even Great Grandparents, and when autism was explained to these people, many of them recognised the signs within themselves. In the past autism was not known about or understood, and a lot of people from certain generations were diagnosed as having childhood schizophrenia. There is no way of telling when looking back a hundred years, or even further, if the symptoms people had were actually of autism, or of something completely different. However, it does seem probable with the knowledge that this generation now has – and also the diagnosis of current generations – that an accurate guess could be made.
If somebody is autistic, and so are their parents, and their Grandparents have strong traits of autism, it would seem strange to assume that was where it ended – that nobody in the family, three or four hundred years ago, was autistic. Seeing as though most people who were autistic in the past would just have been labelled as `idiots` – the same as many other people who had all manner of learning disabilities, or mental health issues – it is impossible to have a genuine record, and nothing can ever actually be conclusively proved. But there does seem a strong likelihood that millions of people could have existed with autism before it was ever officially recognised, and given a name. It is safe to assume that different societies throughout history would have treated these people differently – some may have been fair and easy places to live, and some may have been brutal and uncompromising for anybody who was different.
Does the fact that people’s ancestors may have been autistic actually mean anything practically? Well both yes and no; for the individual with autism personally, it probably doesn’t change a lot. It may well be interesting for them to look back, and analyse aspects of their ancestors’ behaviour to see if any fit with their own. But as for their day to day life, no, it probably won’t change a great deal. What it may do is offer more clues as to what autism actually is, and also go some way to curbing the people who insist upon calling autism an epidemic, and suggesting it is something that only happens to this generation.
Unfortunately there is no way to prove that people have always been autistic, but the very fact that so many people appear to have been could do a great deal to help research in to autism, and ways of coping with it. This may actually help autistic people of this generation in a practical sense.
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Editor’s Note: This is the first article in a series of four about autism within families. Look for the next in the series this Wednesday.