Up until now, I had never given much thought to the word “autism”. It was just the word for what I had, a disorder that affected me for better or for worse. But every word has to come from somewhere. Where did the word “autism” come from?

I recently read an article about Donald Triplett, autism’s “patient zero”, so to speak. That article tells the story about how Mary Triplett, Donald’s mother, had pulled some very valuable strings to get Dr. Kanner, the man who literally wrote the book on child psychiatry, to have a look at her son. He described Donald’s condition as “a condition which has not hitherto been described by psychiatric or any other literature.” So how did he describe what he observed in Donald’s behaviour?

He had, however, been working on a name for this new condition. Pulling together the distinctive symptoms exhibited by Donald and the eight other children—their lack of interest in people, their fascination with objects, their need for sameness, their keenness to be left alone—he wrote Mary: “If there is any name to be applied to the condition of Don and those other children, I have found it best to speak of it as ‘autistic disturbance of affective contact.’”

Kanner did not coin the term autistic. It was already in use in psychiatry, not as the name of a syndrome but as an observational term describing the way some patients with schizophrenia withdrew from contact with those around them. Like the word feverish, it described a symptom, not an illness. But now Kanner was using it to pinpoint and label a complex set of behaviors that together constituted a single, never-before-recognized diagnosis: autism. (As it happens, another Austrian, Hans Asperger, was working at the same time in Vienna with children who shared some similar characteristics, and independently applied the identical word—autistic to the behaviors he was seeing; his paper on the subject would come out a year after Kanner’s, but remained largely unknown until it was translated into English in the early 1990s.)

A term for an observed behaviour in schizophrenics became the term for an entire spectrum of disorders, all sharing common traits of difficulty communicating and forming interpersonal relationships. As a nice bonus, we even get a glimpse into the origin of Asperger’s Syndrome. So this word was not pulled from the ether; it was coined to describe precisely what Kanner saw in Donald and in the cases that he had discovered were similar to his.

(An upshot of this is that the influence of Donald’s mother was possibly a key factor in how this all played out. If she had asked Asperger for help instead of Kanner, the terms we use to describe “autism” might have been quite different.)

But that’s English. I happen to know a bit about one more language: Japanese. What is the word for “autism” in Japanese? Here it is:

ji-hei-shou: the Japanese word for "autism"

It is comprised of three ideographic characters, whose individual meanings combine together to form a compound word. The first character means self. The second means closed. The third means illness or disorder. So now we see how the Japanese describe “autism”: it is a disorder characterized by the person being closed or shut within herself. I have not read much literature in Japanese about autism but comparing the English and Japanese words makes me to wonder what the state of autism advocacy and/or awareness is in Japan compared to North America.

Perhaps this is the beginning of a journey to understand my condition from yet another angle.

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