A Brief History of Autism from 1997–2018

Over the course of the last 20 years, our knowledge of Autism and how we work to make the world accommodating to those with autism has changed dramatically. Many organizations and groups have taken part in and pioneered this process. For this article, I will be focusing on a community called Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center (SARRC). This community has primarily assisted in advancing the understanding and treatment of autism.

This article will create an abridged timeline to evaluate what autism looked like 20 years ago, and how the understandings and processes surrounding autism and diagnosis have changed now. This article works to further build a bridge of understanding to enlighten how we can work to build a more inclusive society for those with disabilities.

In 1997, a study suggested that 1 in 2,500 children were likely to be diagnosed with autism. This high statistic demanded that we work harder toward understanding the disability. In 2000, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) began carefully tracking prevalence rates through the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network. Today, 21 years later, the CDC reports that 1 in 68 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder or (ASD).

The average estimated age of diagnosis was four years, four months in 1997. Even though parental concerns were noted in earlier development, it was more common for children to be identified and diagnosed upon reaching school age. The CDC has stated that in the current day, the average of diagnosis in the U.S. is three years, ten months. Some research has indicated that a diagnosis of autism can be made as early as two years old.

Over the past 20 years, the diagnostic criteria for autism have changed as well. The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) in 2015 newly identified autism as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) folding all subcategories of the condition into one umbrella diagnosis. The categories are autism disorder, Asperger’s disorder and PDD are no longer considered separate states.

Those individuals who were diagnosed with autism in the 1990s are now grown and working to pioneer forms of inclusivity. They are working to build and shape inclusive employment and educational opportunities. It is invigorating to watch what progress will continue to be made, as well as to help work to bridge understanding and inclusivity for those with autism.