Serving Monroe, Owen, and Greene Counties

Autism Spectrum Disorder: What to Know

Early in the morning on August 8, community members gathered at the quaint BloomingTea with Jim Wiltz, PhD HSPP, director of Milestones, the clinical division of Stone Belt, for Wake Up! with United Way “Autism Spectrum Disorder: What to Know.” 
“One question I often get is, ‘So, are you trying to cure autism?’ No, that’s not what we’re trying to do because that’s not really possible,” he said. “We’re just trying to help people overcome barriers.” 
Wiltz explained that the word “autistic” was first used in the medical world in the 1910s to refer to the tendency of those diagnosed with catatonic schizophrenia to draw inward.  
Professionals began to study autism as its own condition around the 1940s when the return of veterans from World War II sparked a need for mental health diagnoses. But it wasn’t until the 1960s when autism became a diagnosis. 
Around this time, behavioralism, the idea that you are solely the product of your environment, was popular in mental health studies. This led to the inaccurate idea that “refrigerator mothers,” or mothers lacking maternal warmth and affection toward their children, were the cause of a child developing autism.  
“The idea that somebody is to blame, it’s absurd,” Wiltz said. “And it certainly doesn’t push the ball forward for treatment or getting help.” 
The 1970s sparked more research and greater awareness, which in turn increased treatment. But the treatment was focused on “curing” autism, which is not recognized as the best practice today. 
“It’s skills acquisition,” said Wiltz. “It’s not a cure for autism.” 
In the 1980s medical professionals outlined a standardize way to apply the diagnosis of autism to a patient. But it was referred to as “infantile autism,” and focused on children, leaving out a population of adults with autism. 
The 1990s is when practitioners finally started to define autism as it is understood today. Medical professionals looked at three aspects of autism: social interaction, communication, and repetitive behavior. They also separated Autism Spectrum Disorder and Asperger’s Syndrome.  
Around this time is also when the conversation about autism exploded with new treatments and causes, many of which turned out to be untrue. Many people thought that secretin treatments or gluten-free diets could “cure” autism. Early intervention, which can be helpful in some cases, was also looked at inaccurately as a cure. 
It was in 1998 that a study was published including fabricated data that linked the MMR vaccine with autism, that ultimate lead to the lead researcher losing his medical license. The study is still cited today by parents who believe it is unsafe to vaccinate their children. This not only caused misinformation within the community of people with autism and their families, but it also had dangerous ramifications for unvaccinated children and children who could not receive vaccines due to health conditions.  
Today, although not much has changed in how autism diagnosis criteria are understood, the condition Asperger’s Syndrome is no longer diagnosed by medical professionals, as it is now included within Autism Spectrum Disorder.  
In 1989, when autism first was diagnosed, there were 2,000 kids diagnosed with autism in Indiana public schools. In 2015, there were 14,000. That is a seven-fold increase.  
Wiltz theorizes that the explanation for this increase is quite simple: the definition of autism is expanding, and we are gaining a better understanding of the diagnostic criteria over time.  
“It’s not that there’s been this dramatic increase,” he said. “It’s just that we’re looking at the diagnosis a little differently.”  
Want to learn more about topics discussed related to Autism Spectrum Disorder? Check out these links to learn more in-depth info.
Session handouts:
The next Wake Up! with United Way breakfast panel will examine “Homelessness: Unpacking the Point in Time Count” Thursday, September 12th at The Mill (642 N Madison St.)  Tickets and more info here >>


Wake Up! with United Way is a collaborative project of United Way of Monroe County and Indiana University's Political and Civic Engagement Program, with thanks to Old National Bank for series support. 

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