I’ve written before about descriptions of autism before autism was known about, in old documents about various kinds of “idiots” and “imbeciles“. Here is a little comment about children diagnosed as both emotionally disturbed and deaf at a time when hearing tests weren’t all that reliable, from someone who was there at the time and now thinks these children were autistic:
I was supported by this National Institutes of Health training program for a fourth year during which I attended pediatric neurology ward rounds with Dr Jim Hamill or Dr Carter and Dr Carter’s Wednesday morning outpatient rounds for children with cerebral palsy and those with speech and hearing disorders. The latter intrigued me, as what ailed thesenonverbal children was not obvious. (I found out later that behavioral audiology was unreliable at diagnosing the severity of hearing losses in very young children, and, in retrospect, that autism would no doubt have been the correct diagnosis in some puzzling “emotionally disturbed” mute children.)
That is from “Isabelle Rapin: An Autobiography”, in the Journal of Child Neurology (May 2001), and she’s describing work she did in the 1950s.
Another set of autistic children who weren’t known to be autistic back then. I bet today they would be. But, today, they’re part of an “epidemic”, because nobody could have missed such severely autistic people back in the 1950s. (That last sentence is sarcasm.)
I don’t have the attention span at the moment to elaborate at length, so I’ll leave the implications to others. But, I’m suspecting there’s a whole lot of different disciplines you’d have to collect up and count kids from in previous generations before you could say you knew how many autistic people there really were back then.