Skip links

Is this an Autism Epidemic?

Early in December, the CBC Radio show The Current hosted a discussion with Steve Silberman about autism.  Silberman had recently performed at a TED conference regarding his thoughts presented in his book “Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity”.

In these recordings, Silberman discusses the so-called “epidemic” of autism beginning in the 1990s.  He offers an historical side to autism that shows that this “epidemic” is not a viral breakout in the common sense, but a result of a broadening of diagnostic criteria for autism. To tell this story, Silberman must give the story of how autism came to be understood in North America.  This story begins with Hans Asperger, who operated a clinic for children in Austria in the 1930s.  The children who attended were considered “un-teachable” (Silberman, 2015) by the community, but at Asperger’s clinic, they progressed.  Asperger succeeded by listening to his students and enlisting them to help develop a way for them to learn.  During this time, Asperger was writing a paper on a disorder he called “autism”.  In 1938, due to the activity of Nazi Germany in Austria, two researchers from Asperger’s clinic fled to Baltimore where they began working with Leo Kanner at John Hopkins Hospital.  Kanner immediately began writing a paper similar to Asperger’s on a disorder he—perhaps, not so coincidentally—also called “autism”.

While Asperger’s paper defined autism as a lifelong condition with a spectrum of characteristics that occurs in more people than we can readily see, Kanner’s paper described the condition as a very rare form of childhood psychosis triggered by bad parenting.  Unfortunately, Asperger’s paper was written in German and was largely ignored due to fears of Nazi-sympathizers, allowing Kanner’s paper to become the North American understanding of autism.  This explains the cause of parents’ shame of autism; they believed that the condition reflected their poor abilities as parents.  It also explains why the number of autism diagnoses grew in the 1990s; after Asperger’s paper was translated into English in 1981 and gained recognition, his explanation of the condition was formally accepted by the medical community in 1994.  The translation of Asperger’s paper is due to the efforts of Lorna Wing.  She studied the general population of England, and confirmed the variability found in Asperger’s definition of autism.

The advantage of Asperger’s paper is that it allows for variability.  It avoids defining the child or adult in terms of how they differ from typical society.  A child or adult with Autism is not a failed version of normal, they simply function differently and experience difficulty living in a world that was not made for them.  If great minds always thought alike, we would not have the diversity of thought that allows the us to see the world from so many perspectives.


Written by: Laura Keeble, Researcher at Simone Friedman Speech-Language Services


Silberman, S. (2015, December 8). Rethinking autism through the prism of neurodiversity [Interview by A. M. Tremonti]. In The Current. Toronto, Ontario: CBC. Retrieved December 18, 2015, from

Leave a comment

This website uses cookies to improve your web experience.