The 1970s

• First demonstration of genetic basis of autism
• Attachment theory discredited
• Second form of Rimland Checklist published
• Language problems recognized to be due not to severe language impairment but to a language delay, which is a critical characteristic of autism
• Children with autism shown to have a cognitive defect that affects interpersonal verbal and nonverbal communication
• Research inadequate and inconsistent

1940s 1950s 1960s 1980s 1990s 2000s
1940s 1950s 1960s 1970s 1980s 1990s 2000s

Research in the 1970s
In the 1970s, the psychiatrists Susan Folstein of Tufts University and Sir Michael Rutter (of University College London) published a study of twins with autism, proving that autism had a genetic basis.[1] Rutter also modified Bowlby’s attachment theory, concluding that lack of maternal attachment was a “vulnerability factor” rather than a “causative agent” for autism. The common understanding of autism’s underlying cause shifted more toward genetic predisposition or injury during development.[1][2][3] Researchers also discovered that the language problems of a child with autism were due not to severe language impairment but rather to a language delay.[4] This language delay was pivotal in distinguishing autism from other neurodevelopmental disorders, specifically dysphasia.[4] In addition, new studies indicated that children with autism had a cognitive defect that affected processing of interpersonal verbal and nonverbal communication.[5] Researchers decided to determine whether failure to respond to certain stimuli (one of two) would be an important factor in the development of autism,[6] as individuals who were mentally disabled would respond to two. The methodology used in the 1970s was inadequate and inconsistent, leading to sweeping generalizations about autism.[7]

Ross Senter, Karthik Kumar, and Sharmila Banerjee-Basu, Ph.D.

  1. Folstein S, Rutter M (1977) Infantile autism: a genetic study of 21 twin pairs. J Child Psychol Psychiatry 18:297-321. PMID: 562353.
  2. DeMyer MK (1979) Parents and Children in Autism. Washington, DC: VH Winston.
  3. Damasio AR, Maurer RG (1978) A neurological model for childhood autism. Arch Neurol 35:777-786. PMID: 718482.
  4. Bartak L, Rutter M, et al. (1977) A comparative study of infantile autism and specific developmental receptive language disorders. III. Discriminant function analysis. J Autism Child Schizophr 7:383-396. PMID: 599138.
  5. Langdell T (1978) Recognition of faces: an approach to the study of autism. J Child Psychol Psychiatry 19:255-268. PMID: 681468.
  6. Lovaas OI, Shereibman L, et al. (1971) Selective responding by autistic children to multiple sensory input. J Abnorm Psychol 77:211-222. PMID: 5556929.
  7. Rutter M (1968) Autistic children: infancy to adulthood. Semin Psychiatry 2:435-450. PMID: 5527410.