History of Autism in the DSM: DSM-I to DSM-IV

Update August 2013: I’ve turned this data into the History of Autism in the United States Infographic – check it out!

With professionals around the world debating how autism spectrum disorders will be listed in the DSM-V, now is a good time to look back at the history of autism in the DSM, starting with the DSM-I and ending with the DSM-IV.

The Diagnostics and Statistics Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is the standard by which autism spectrum disorders are diagnosed in the United States. Autism was not included as a separate diagnostic condition in the original release of the DSM in 1952. As of the most recent release of the DSM, the DSM-IV, there are five types of autism spectrum disorders specifically identified. The journey of autism in the DSM is useful in understanding the increased diagnostic rates of today.

The DSM-I was originally released in 1952. Although autism was recognized as a unique condition as early as 1943, it was not included in the DSM. Instead, children who exhibited autistic-like symptoms were diagnosed under the schizophrenic reaction, childhood type label.

The second release of the Diagnostics and Statistics Manual of Mental Disorders came in 1968. As with the first release, autism was not included as a separate diagnostic category. In Roy Richard Grinker’s book, Unstrange Minds, the DSM-II included the following language: “the condition may be manifested by autistic, atypical and withdrawn behavior.” Children exhibiting these behaviors were diagnosed as schizophrenic, childhood type.

In 1980, the DSM-III was released and we finally see the inclusion of autism as a separate diagnostic category. At this point, there was only one autism designation and it was entitled infantile autism. There were only six characteristics listed and each of these six symptoms must be present in order for an individual to be diagnosed with infantile autism. Due to some controversy surrounding the descriptor infantile, this category was changed to autistic disorder in 1987.

The most recent complete release of the DSM, the DSM-IV, occurred in 1994. At this point, the category of pervasive developmental disorders and several subtypes were added. In addition to autistic disorder, a diagnosis could be made under the categories of Asperger’s Disorder, Rett’s Disorder, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS).

Besides the inclusion of four new subtypes, drastic changes were made to the criteria that needed to be met in order to receive a diagnosis of autistic disorder. The current release of the DSM has a list of 16 different symptoms used to describe autistic disorder and a patient only needs to exhibit six of the 16 to receive the diagnosis. This is in stark contrast to the language used in the 1980 release of the DSM-III.

The DSM-V is currently in the works and there are large groups of individuals working on changing the language used to describe the various pervasive developmental disorders. Autism has evolved through the four releases of the DSM and it is only natural to expect that it will be refined even further in the DSM-V.

This article first appeared on Suite101.com in January 2008: History of Autism in the DSM: Diagnostic Criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorders.

About Melissa

Melissa is the mother of two children on the autism spectrum and strives to provide information about all aspects of autism through her blog, The Autism Education Site. Follow Melissa on Twitter. Like me on Facebook.

© Melissa Hincha-Ownby and The Autism Education Site, 2008-2014.


  1. My sister had a son who is now about 30 , up untill when he was about 2 yr’s old he was a perfectly healthy baby. Then things changed, we thought he had fallen down a set of stairs (3 flights of steep stairs in an apartment building). Over the years we have heard doctors tell us how he has Autism and there is nothing they can do.
    I as his uncle am proud to say that he has a productive part in society because of peoples understanding of Autism, And Iam grateful for sites like yours that bring attention to this important issue . THANKS. well done.

  2. autismresearch says:

    Great site. Keep it up. A good example of severe to profound autism is found on you tube under kgaccount. Warning: disturbing behavior. Or type in severe autism in youtube search engine. You tube also shows autistic savants, so you can compare and contrast.

  3. autismresearch1 says:

    Donna Williams discusses autism, identity & dissociation on youtube. This is very interesting, given Williams has for years marketed herself as “autistic.” How can someone be autistic and now be discovered to be a multiple personality disorder? Something isn’t right here. Nor was it right in Jenny McCarthy’s case, as some experts are saying her son was never autistic. He allegedly had “laundau kleffner syndrome.” That explains why after he received seizure medication, he slowly recovered. McCarthy didn’t cure her son of autism. He never had autism. I think we need to be very careful. Very careful indeed of believing ever story about autism until we SEE and examine it. Notice McCarthy’s books are extremely vague. Notice Williams are hyperintellectual, as almost a way of pushing the person investigating her claims away, with all her intellectual jargon and psychological babble. McCarthy also uses humor to deflect from the truth about her son not being autistic. She’s tried to reinvent herself lately. Amazing the fraud and outright deception of people using and abusing the autism label for profit. Williams probably doesn’t do it on purpose, she’s nuts. McCarthy however is a whole different story.


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