How Was Autism Treated In The 1950s?

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Autism was first described in the early 1900s, but it was not until the 1950s that it began gaining awareness. The historical perspective of autism treatment in the 1950s provides insight into the early understanding and approaches employed during that time. As we continue to learn and understand how to support individuals with autism, it is important to know how it was first recognized and understood.

Historical Perspective: Autism Treatment in the 1950s

During the era of the 1950s, autism was poorly understood, and there was limited knowledge about effective interventions. Institutionalization was a common practice, with individuals with autism often being placed in residential facilities. Behavior modification techniques, such as aversion therapy and strict routines, were employed to manage ‘challenging’ behaviours. However, these approaches lacked scientific basis and often resulted in limited progress. The 1950s marked a period of limited understanding and challenges in autism treatment. However, it was the start of highlighting the need for proper research and development of more effective and compassionate approaches.

Early Approaches and Theories: Understanding Autism Treatment in the 1950s

Early approaches and theories regarding autism treatment in the 1950s reflected the limited understanding of the condition during that time. One prominent theory was the “refrigerator mother” hypothesis, which falsely suggested that autism was caused by a lack of maternal warmth or emotional bonding. This misguided belief led to blame and guilt being placed on parents, mainly mothers. Treatment approaches primarily focused on behaviour modification, with an emphasis on eliminating perceived “undesirable” behaviours through strict discipline and punishment. However, these approaches lacked scientific evidence and failed to address the underlying function and developmental and social challenges faced by individuals with autism.

In 1955, Dr. Leo Kanner published a groundbreaking paper on autism calling it Kanner Syndrome. This helped to increase a new kind of awareness and understanding of the condition. In the years that followed, more research was conducted on autism, and new treatments were developed.

Key Autism Treatment Methods in the 1950s

In the 1950s, institutionalization and behaviour modification were key methods employed in autism treatment. Due to a lack of understanding and limited resources, individuals with autism were often placed in residential institutions, away from their families. These institutions aimed to separate, manage, and control the behaviours associated with autism through strict routines and discipline. Behavior modification techniques, such as aversion therapy and token economy systems, were commonly used to shape behaviours and reduce perceived “undesirable” traits. However, these methods were often based on punishment and compliance rather than reinforcing development of individuals with autism. The reliance on institutionalization and punishment-based behaviour modification during this period reflected the prevailing societal attitudes and the limited knowledge available regarding effective interventions for autism.

Controversial Therapies: Examining Unconventional Approaches of the 1950s

The 1950s witnessed the emergence of controversial therapies and unconventional approaches in the treatment of autism. One notable example was the use of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) as a way to modify behavior. This treatment involved inducing seizures (which is an aversive stimuli) through electrical stimulation of the brain, with the belief that it could alleviate autistic symptoms. Another controversial method was the administration of various pharmaceuticals, including psychotropic drugs and sedatives, without a solid scientific understanding of their efficacy or potential side effects. These unconventional approaches were driven by a combination of desperation, limited knowledge, and societal pressure to find quick solutions for managing the challenges associated with autism. However, such practices lacked a strong evidence base and often caused more harm than benefit. The exploration of these controversial therapies in the 1950s serves as a reminder of the importance of evidence-based practices and ethical considerations to the client in the field of autism treatment.

Limited Understanding and Challenges: Reflections on Autism Treatment in the 1950s

Looking back at autism treatment in the 1950s, it becomes apparent that there was a limited understanding of the condition which led to significant challenges in providing appropriate care. The prevailing belief systems and theories, such as the “refrigerator mother” hypothesis, led to misguided blame and guilt being placed on parents. The emphasis on punishment-based behaviour modification and institutionalization reflected a lack of knowledge about the underlying developmental and social aspects of autism. Additionally, the emergence of controversial and unproven therapies highlighted the desperate search for effective treatments.

The 1950s serve as a reflection of the difficulties faced by individuals with autism and their families during a time when the understanding of the condition was in its infancy, underscoring the need for continued research, awareness, and evidence-based approaches to support individuals with autism.

Evolving Perspectives: Where Are We Today?

Evolving perspectives on autism treatment have led to significant changes when comparing the approaches of the 1950s to contemporary practices. In contrast to the limited understanding and reliance on institutionalization in the past, today’s approaches prioritize early intervention, individualized therapies, reinforcement-focused strategies, and a person-centered approach. Contemporary approaches focus on fostering communication and social skills, promoting independence, and addressing sensory sensitivities. The overall long term goal is to ensure each individual with autism spectrum disorder has the skills to reach a positive and optimal quality of life.

Evidence-based interventions, such as Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), speech and occupational therapies, and social skills training, are widely utilized to support individuals with autism. These evidence-based strategies and interventions are gradually implemented into many settings in a child’s life including homes, communities, and at school. The shift towards inclusion and acceptance has led to a greater emphasis on supporting individuals with autism in their everyday lives, enabling them to reach their full potential and participate fully in society. The evolution of perspectives and practices in autism treatment highlights the progress made in understanding and supporting individuals with autism and emphasize the importance of continuing to advance knowledge and refine approaches in the field.


What happened to autistic children in the 1960s?

In the 1960s, many autistic children faced institutionalization as there was a lack of understanding and support for their needs. They were often separated from their families and placed in residential facilities where treatment primarily focused on punishment-based behaviour modification

What was autism called in 1950?

In the 1950s, autism was referred to as Early Infantile Autism.

How has autism been treated in the past?

Early approaches for autism focused on institutionalization and punishment-based behaviour modification.

What was the earliest treatment for autism?

The earliest treatment for autism can be traced back to the early 1900s when institutionalization was a common approach. The prevailing belief was that removing individuals with autism from their families and providing a structured environment would help manage their challenging behaviours.