The Autism Awareness Club at Eden Prairie High School, founded by Smrithi Karthikeyan, hosted a writing competition for autism awareness month in April. Six excellent essays were submitted. The winning report appears below. The selection committee of Fraser staff also awarded an honorable mention to Laura Balboa for her article, “What is Autism?” which focused on genetic research.
An Open Letter to Autism by Ava Masse
You are three-quarters of a century old. Happy Birthday. Because you have turned the tide of some of my friends’ lives, I would like to try to understand you. It’s been 75 years since Leo Kanner first conceived of you. In the 1943 study, "Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact," Kanner described you playing with young children of wealthy American families. You made the children “oblivious to surroundings and act as if hypnotized” (Chomer). Kanner hinted that you came around when the mother was too cerebral and called you Kanner’s Syndrome. A year later, Hans Asperger described you distracting German boys. His “little professors” were smart; “they frequently had good language skills,” and some could speak complex sentences (Asperger’s Syndrome). The boys often did not make eye contact and “demonstrated withdrawn behavior” (History of Autism).
When you turned six, Kanner published another study. This time, he coined the phrase “refrigerator mother” (History of Autism). Being diagnosed with you was synonymous with having an uncaring mother. Bruno Bettelheim furthered this claim through books and television appearances. You made your first appearance in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) of 1952. The psychologists were just getting to know you, so they named you as a subcategory of schizophrenia (Grinker).
It was a strange pubescent period, being a type of schizophrenia caused by bad mothers. Until a parent with an autistic child, Bernard Rimland, published "Infantile Autism: The Syndrome and Its Implications for Neural Theory of Behavior" in 1964, casting doubt on the refrigerator mother theory. He also founded the Autism Society of America and proposed the first checklist of behaviors associated with you. In 1967, he began trying to decode you with the Autism Research Institute. The DSM III, published in 1980, differentiated you from schizophrenia and enumerated symptoms: “lack of awareness” and “no mode of communication” (Grinker).
You hit the big screen in your middle age in the Hollywood hits, "The Boy Who Could Fly" and "Rain Man." "The Boy Who Could Fly" showed a boy with you struggling to fit in and "Rain Man" popularized the form of you then known as Asperger’s syndrome and now called autistic savantism.
Now you are an old man. You are simultaneously mainstream and misunderstood. We know that a combination of genetics and environmental factors cause you. We know that your long, white beard trails behind one person in every 45 (Rosanoff). We don’t know precisely how you work. But biologists, neurologists, chemists, parents and children know that someday you will be thoroughly understood. And when that day comes, my friends will have better lives.
"Asperger's Syndrome," Autism Society, www.autism-society.org/waht-is/aspergers-syndrome/
Britannica, the Editors of Encyclopedia. "Bernard Rimland." Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 21 Dec.2006, www.britannica.com/biography/Bernard-Rimland
Cohmer, Sean. "the Embryo Project Encyclopedia." Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact: (1943), by Leo Kanner | The Embryo Project Encyclopedia, 23 May 2014, embryo.asu.edu/pages/autistic-disturbances-affective-contact-1943-leo-kanner
Grinker, Roy Richard, "Diagnostic Criteria for Autism through the Years." Unstrange Minds: Diagnostic Criteria for Autistic Disorder through the Years, 2007, www.unstrange.com/dsm1.html
Hilditch, Nick. "Films-Review-Rain Man." BBC, BBC, 9 Mar. 2001, www.bbc.co.uk/films/2001/03/09/rain_man_1988_review.shtml
"History of Autism." Project Autism: Your Number One Autism Resource, projectautism.org/history-of-autism
Maslin, Janet. "Screen: The Boy Who Could Fly." The New York Times, The New York Times, 21 Nov. 1986, www.nytimes.come/1986/11/21/movies/screen-the-boy-who-could-fly.html
Rossanoff, Michael. "New Government Survey Pegs Autism Prevalence at 1 in 45." Autism Speaks, 14 Nov. 2015, www.autismspeaks.org/science/science-news/new-government-survey-pegs-autism-prevalence-1-45.