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Spectrum: Autism Research News

Opinion Conversations on the science of autism research.

Historic diagnosis

by  /  13 July 2012

This article is more than five years old. Autism research - and science in general - is constantly evolving, so older articles may contain information or theories that have been reevaluated since their original publication date.

More than 100 years ago, while working in a school for disabled children he had founded with his father, Austrian educator Theodor Heller described cases of children who had been developing normally, and suddenly lost social and language skills around 3 or 4 years of age.

He dubbed the condition dementia infantilis, but we know it as childhood disintegrative disorder (CDD). One of the autism spectrum disorders, CDD is diagnosed in children who develop normally until at least 2 years of age and then rapidly lose social, language and other skills.

That reign may soon come to an end.

Examining translations of Heller’s original case descriptions in German, Pelphrey and his co-authors point out in the new review that Heller described the core symptoms of autism — language deficits, social withdrawal and stereotyped behaviors — long before Leo Kanner’s classic paper was published in 1943.

But studying what makes CDD different from other forms of autism may help us understand autism more broadly. For example, both Pelphrey’s research and Heller’s case studies note a period of intense anxiety and terror before the child’s dramatic loss of skills. 

“If we can understand what drives the bouts of terror prior to loss of skills, we might have a clue about the mechanism creating autism,” the authors write. “But if these children no longer have a unique diagnostic descriptor, clinicians will be less likely to bring the unusual, late-regressing children whom they see to the attention of researchers.”