The History of Autism

“Red Lion” – Jessica Park (2012)
  • Vicedo, M., “The First International Congress on Infantile Psychiatry,” Psychiatric Times. July 2020; 37 (7): 18.
  • Vicedo, M and Ilerbaig J., “Leo Kanner’s Call for a Pediatric-Psychiatric Alliance.” Pediatrics. 2020; 145 (6): e20194047.
  • “Ethopathology and Civilization Diseases: Niko and Elisabeth Tinbergen on Autism.” Canadian Bulletin of Medical History 35 (1):1-31, 2018.

The idea that some diseases result from a poor fit between modern life and our biological make-up is part of the long history of what historian of medicine Charles Rosenberg has called the ‘‘progress-and-pathology narrative.’’ This article examines a key episode in that history: 1973 Nobel laureate Niko Tinbergen’s use of an evolutionary framework to identify autism as a pathogenic effect of progress. Influenced by British psychiatrist John Bowlby’s work, Tinbergen and his wife Elisabeth saw autistic children as victims of environmental stress caused mainly by mothers’ failure to bond with their children and to protect them from conflicting situations. For them, autism was due to a failure of socialization but the mechanisms that explain that failure were established by biological evolution. Situating their views within the context of Niko’s concern about the derailment of biological evolution by cultural evolution, this article shows that their ideas are of special significance for understanding the persistence of the view that civilization poses a risk to human health.