Autism is a neuro-developmental disorder with a prevalence of about one in 100 births. Although we assume that this disorder has always been with us, and Rab Houston and I identified a case from the 18th century, it was not given a label until the 1940s. Hans Asperger, a Viennese pediatrician, and Leo Kanner, an American child psychiatrist, both used the label ‘autistic’ to characterise the condition. It took another thirty years until it was understood that it was not rare, but there was a whole spectrum of autistic conditions, all sharing the core symptoms of impaired social communication and repetitive and restricted behaviours. To explain these symptoms I mention two proposals: the ‘Theory of mind’ account, explaining the communication impairment; the ‘Weak central coherence account’, explaining the focus on detail.
Uta Frith is Emeritus Professor of Cognitive Development at UCL’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience.