The First Reference to Autism in the Indian Literature?

Tamara C. Daley, Ph.D.

Note: Please use the appropriate reference this article as originating from the Action for Autism website.

While of little practical interest, it is nevertheless intriguing to look back at the history of Autism, and particularly the history of Autism in India. Since the late 1950's, articles have appeared in Indian medical and social journals and books in which the authors describe cases of pervasive developmental disorder, using the terminology of the day. However, it is also interesting to ponder the possibility that reports of what we now call "autism" may have appeared under different names prior to the 1943 article in which Leo Kanner named it so.

In possibly the first reference to autism and the pervasive developmental disorders in the Indian literature, a report comes from a Viennese pediatrician A. Ronald, working in Darjeeling at the time. Ronald presented an overview of the detection, causes, types and treatment of what he termed 'abnormal children' in the very same year as Kanner's hallmark publication: 1944. This article holds significance not only for its potential early reference to autism, but because it is one of the earliest scholarly discussions of child mental health in the leading medical and social journals of the time, and the first in the Indian Journal of Pediatrics.

Ronald devotes the article to discussing various types of "difficult" children, including the "deviant" behavior of anger, disobedience, lack of cleanliness, vanity, lack of politeness, jealousy, lying, and fanatically truthful children, as well as 'frightful children'. At the end of his discussion, Ronald adds one final type of "difficult" child, what he termed the "precociousness of a child." What follows is his description.

"The precociousness of a child is not always limited to specific spheres, not to conception alone, on the other hand, it extends to the whole of mental personality…such children are quite different from others in respoect of behaviour, speech, movements, and work. The child-like conduct has partly or fully disappeared, the mental attitude of such a child becomes somewhat strange and repulsive…such children are no longer child-like, they do not play and are not cheerful. Partial precociousness shows itself in the development of a particular sense, for example, musical sense, calculations, mechanical handling, and so on. In this group is included the so called prodigy…" (p. 24)

This description, while tantalizingly short, highlights a number of the same areas as Leo Kanner in his 1944 article. Ronald notes that this type of problem does not just effect one area, but 'extends to the whole of mental personality.' Today we might call that the "pervasive" aspect of the disorder. Ronald's observation that the 'child like conduct' of such children is compromised, and that play is absent; one of the most salient features of a young autistic child. Just as Kanner noted, Ronald also remarks that these children may show a special ability in an isolated area, yet concludes with the foreboding caveat that despite these abilities, these children, "who do well in school and go ahead of others, do not always succeed in after life." As any parent of a child who has remarkable mathematical or other abilities, or whose child passes his exams knows, these talents do not necessarily guarantee that the child's adult life is secure.

Certainly it is conceivable that Ronald is referring not to autism, but rather to children with a less pervasive problem. Yet the possibility remains that Dr. Ronald may just have provided history with another early description of Autism-- and all the way from India!

Note: We appreciate appropriate reference this article as originating from the Action for Autism website.

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