19 January 2012

The Origins of Autism Research: A History

A few months ago the editors of Dissertation Reviews invited me to review an excellent dissertation by Dr Bonnie Evans. Evans completed her doctorate in the history of medicine at the University of Cambridge in 2010.  Her study is, I believe, an instant classic. She is bound to become the world expert on the history of autism. Her dissertation is highly original and theoretically sophisticated. Here's a taste of her work through my review (which is published here):
Using legal, institutional, intellectual sources, as well as patient records from the Maudsley to excavate her story, Evans convincingly demonstrates that transformations and formations outside and inside the strata of professional psychiatry and psychology ultimately made and unmade child patients, categorizing them in various generations as “backwards,” “mental defectives,” “subnormals,” “ineducables,” “psychotics,” “schizophrenics,” “autistics,” and “socially impaired,” She concludes that the increasing prominence of the autistic child derived from a confluence of epidemiological understandings about the social and mental abnormalities of children and laws concerned with those children’s protection and education. It was this meeting between law and epidemiology that ultimately constructed the autistic child into a demographic reality and made that child a prevalent, persistent subject. 
As a sidenote: Dissertation Reviews is a truly great resource for historians. They are definitely forward-looking technologically, and their web-design is aesthetically pleasing. They have just started a Science Studies Series, which is bound to be of great value to historians and sociologists of science, medicine and technology.


  1. Interesting post.

    Similar study based on records of William Howship Dickinson at GOSH: Autistic disorder in nineteenth-century London. (http://aut.sagepub.com/content/8/1/7.short)

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