“No person familiar with these cases would be likely to mistake them for idiots; they look differently, walk differently, and have different developments of body and mind.”—Samuel Woodward
In 1943, the psychiatrist Leo Kanner created the label, autism, to identify unusual behavior that he had observed in some children. These behaviors included no speech or sometimes repetitive speech, the avoidance of social contact and the failure to learn social skills, and a propensity for obsessive interests. Since that time, autism has become a condition. Conditions, of course, influence labels and, in turn, labels affect conditions. In the case of autism, this process of constructing difference has created controversy. Is autism a set of nominal conditions, or is it a spectrum of the same condition? Is it increasing in the general population? If so, is the increase the result of childhood immunizations? Should behaviors associated with autism be altered and adjusted, or should autism be accepted as an alternative neurological variation? Basic to these questions is a prior question that takes us back to Leo Kanner’s 1943 label: When did autism begin?
In The Manliest Man: Samuel G. Howe and the Contours of Nineteenth-Century American Reform (2012), James Trent argues that Samuel Howe identified autism nearly a century before Kanner gave a name to the condition. He did so beginning in 1844 in conjunction with his advocacy for the first Massachusetts school for “idiots” that eventually opened in 1848. In 1844 and 1845 he also exchanged letters with Samuel Woodward, the medical superintendent of the Worcester Lunatic Asylum, which Howe expanded and published in the Boston Advertiser. In these published letters, Howe maintained that there were intellectually disabled children who were not classically “idiotic.” In a 13 February 1845 letter to Woodward, for example, Howe wrote, “I have discovered two very singular & interesting cases in this city, of children under ten years of age who have been insane, & dumb from infancy, who are now nearly unmanageable by their parents, but who I am sure, in a proper establishment, might be taught many useful things, & perhaps trained to habits of simple labor, such as would [be] profitable in several ways.” Two weeks later in the Advertiser Howe quoted Woodward, “Their movements are free, easy and graceful, many of them are sprightly, even handsome; they are generally restless, irritable and extremely mischievous, and are rarely able to speak. . . No person familiar with these cases would be likely to mistake them for idiots; they look differently, walk differently, and have different developments of body and mind. Like other insane persons, there is difficulty in fixing the attention, they move with great rapidity from one thing to another, and are impatient of restraint. In some such persons particular faculties seem much more active than others. One lad had never learned to read, but was observing of many things, particularly of mechanical operations, drawing, &c.”
In The Manliest Man argues, Trent contends that “although autism would be a century away from Leo Kanner’s creation of the label, Woodward’s and Howe’s descriptions of the children suggest the condition. ‘Insanity’ had almost always been associated with adults; Howe in the Advertiser, however, argued that children too can have a particular form of mental illness.”
In their article, “The Early History of Autism in America,” in the January–February 2016 edition of the Smithsonian, John Donvan and Caren Zucker note Trent’s claim and expand upon it by crediting Howe for launching “the story of autism.” They call Trent’s biography of Howe “superb” and use it in their forthcoming book, In a Different Key: The Story of Autism to identify Howe’s place in the earliest history of the condition. As Trent asserts in The Manliest Man, Howe’s primacy in the American development of services for the blind and intellectually disabled now expands to his importance in our understanding of autism.
The Manliest Man: Samuel G. Howe and the Contours of Nineteenth-Century American Reform by James Trent is available for purchase at https://www.umass.edu/umpress/title/manliest-man