This thesis illustrates that Kanner held an explicitly descriptive frame of reference toward his eleven child patients, their parents, and autism. Adolf Meyer, his mentor at Johns Hopkins, trained him to make detailed life-charts under a clinical framework called psychobiology. By understanding that Kanner was a psychobiologist by training, I revisit the original definition of autism as a category of mental disorder and restate its terms. This history illuminates the theoretical context of autism's discovery and has important implications for the first definition of autism amidst shifting theories of childhood mental disorders and the place of the natural sciences in defining them.

Leo Kanner studied and described early infantile autism in humans in the US during the twentieth century. Though Eugen Bleuler first coined the term autism in 1910 as a symptom of schizophrenia, Kanner helped define autism as a disease concept separate from schizophrenia. He helped found an early child psychiatry department in 1930 at the Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. Kanner revised criteria for diagnosing autism, beginning with his article Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact in 1943, and he helped reclassify autism as a disorder caused by defective neurological development.

Bernard Rimland studied autism in children in the United States in the second half of the twentieth century. His early research in the 1950s and into the 1960s led him to assert that infantile autism was a neurodevelopmental disorder, or one that is caused by impairments in the growth and development of the brain or central nervous system. Rimland's assertion that infantile autism was a neurodevelopmental disorder contradicted another theory at that time that the condition resulted from emotionally cold parenting. Rimland spent much of his career as a psychology researcher for the United States Navy in Point Loma, California, but in his spare time he researched and wrote about autism, and he advocated for children with autism and their families.

Infantile Autism: The Syndrome and Its Implications for a Neural Theory of Behavior (hereafter Infantile Autism) is a book written by Bernard Rimland, published in 1964. The book proposed a theory to explain the causes of autism. The book also synthesized research into autism and used Rimland's neural theory, described in the book, as a theory to explain some aspects of behavior, intelligence, and abnormality. Moreover, Infantile Autism contributed to a debate between Rimland and child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim in the 1960s over whether autism was caused by upbringing (see refrigerator mother theory) or by impaired brain development. Rimland's book convinced many autism researchers to look for abnormal psychological development.

Leo Kanner published Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact in 1943 in the journal Nervous Child. This article described the cases of eleven children with autism. Kanner described the behavior and upbringing of each child, aged two to eight, as well as the educational backgrounds of the children's. Though Eugen Bleuler, a professor of psychiatric at the University of Z rich and director of the Burgh lzli Asylum in Z rich in Z rich, Switzerland from 1898 to 1927, was first to use the term autism to describe of a symptom of schizophrenia, scientists cite Kanner's article as the first description of autism as a unique disease concept distinct from schizophrenia. One of the most cited articles about autism in the twentieth century, this article was the first to demarcate Kanner syndrome, which later called childhood autism. Researchers, including Kanner, eventually treated early infantile autism as a disorder resulting from abnormal development of the autistic children's brains.

In 1943, child psychiatrist Leo Kanner in the US gave the first account of Early Infantile Autism that encouraged psychiatrists to investigate what they called emotionally cold mothers, or refrigerator mothers. In 1949, Kanner published Problems of Nosology and Psychodynamics of Early Infantile Autism. In that article, Kanner described autistic children as reared in emotional refrigerators. US child psychiatrists claimed that some psychological or behavioral conditions might have origins in emotional or mental stress, meaning that they might be psychogenic. Kanner described autism's cause in terms of emotional refrigeration from parents into the early 1960s, often attributing autism to the lack of parental warmth. In the 1960s, Bernard Rimland in the US and Bruno Bettelheim in Austria disagreed on the role of psychogenesis in autism. Rimland suggested that autism's cause was rooted in neurological development, while Bettelheim continued to emphasize the role of nurturing during early childhood. Nevertheless, many mothers reported that they felt a deep sense of anguish and resentment toward child psychiatrists who often made them feel as if they were to blame for their children's autism.

Sir John Bertrand Gurdon further developed nuclear transplantation, the technique used to clone organisms and to create stem cells, while working in Britain in the second half of the twentieth century. Gurdon's research built on the work of Thomas King and Robert Briggs in the United States, who in 1952 published findings that indicated that scientists could take a nucleus from an early embryonic cell and successfully transfer it into an unfertilized and enucleated egg cell. Briggs and King also concluded that a nucleus taken from an adult cell and similarly inserted into an unfertilized enucleated egg cell could not produce normal development. In 1962, however, Gurdon published results that indicated otherwise. While Briggs and King worked with Rana pipiens frogs, Gurdon used the faster-growing species Xenopus laevis to show that nuclei from specialized cells still held the potential to be any cell despite its specialization. In 2012, the Nobel Prize Committee awarded Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka its prize in physiology and medicine for for their work on cloning and pluripotent stem cells.

The development of the obstetric ultrasound has allowed physicians and embryologists to obtain a clear picture of the developing human embryo and fetus during pregnancy. Obstetric ultrasonography, often referred to as ultrasound, is a technology that uses sound waves to produce images of structures inside the human body. A handheld probe emits sound waves, which are reflected back by the different structures within the body. These reflected sound waves are converted into electric signals that are detected by a transducer, which then produces two-dimensional images that can be interpreted by medical professionals. Ultrasound technology has become a sophisticated, high-resolution diagnostic imaging tool used widely in medicine, especially obstetrics.

Nuclear transplantation is a method in which the nucleus of a donor cell is relocated to a target cell that has had its nucleus removed (enucleated). Nuclear transplantation has allowed experimental embryologists to manipulate the development of an organism and to study the potential of the nucleus to direct development. Nuclear transplantation, as it was first called, was later referred to as somatic nuclear transfer or cloning.

In 1975 John Gurdon, Ronald Laskey, and O. Raymond Reeves published "Developmental Capacity of Nuclei Transplanted from Keratinized Skin Cells of Adult Frogs," in the Journal of Embryology and Experimental Morphology. Their article was the capstone of a series of experiments performed by Gurdon during his time at Oxford and Cambridge, using the frog species Xenopus laevis. Gurdon's first experiment in 1958 showed that the nuclei of Xenopus cells maintained their ability to direct normal development when transplanted. The goal of Gurdon's experiments was to show that specialized adult cells could maintain the information and capacity to direct normal development. He asked whether cells undergo permanent changes once they become fully specialized. Gurdon, Laskey, and Reeves's publication was important to embryology because it shed light on that very question.

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