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.

Scientist Franz Max Albert Kramer worked as a psychiatrist in Poland and the Netherlands in the early twentieth century and is known for his contributions to research on psychological conditions that experts call hyperkinetic syndromes. Children with hyperkinetic syndromes display inattention, overactivity, and impulsivity. Along with scientist Hans Pollnow, Kramer defined a specific kind of hyperkinetic syndrome based on an initial case study of seventeen children, initially known as Kramer-Pollnow Syndrome. In 1980, the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-III, renamed Kramer-Pollnow syndrome to be attention deficit disorder, or ADD. A later revision, in 1987, renamed it attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. Kramer advanced child psychiatry research by laying the groundwork for further research on and understanding of what experts call, as of 2021, ADHD.

In 1984, Dante Cicchetti published “The Emergence of Developmental Psychopathology,” an article in which he argued that the previously amorphous study of developmental psychopathology was emerging as a unified discipline. According to Cicchetti, developmental psychopathology describes an interdisciplinary field that studies abnormalities in psychological function that can arise during human development. Such studies include research about the effects that traumatic experiences may have on the development of psychological disorders and about what behaviors are considered normal or abnormal at different ages. In the article, Cicchetti reports about the origins of developmental psychopathology, why it emerged as its own discipline, and why researchers should study it. In addition to recognizing the field of developmental psychopathology, the article informed later research about preventing and treating the harmful psychological effects of early traumatic events.

Emil Kraepelin was a physician who studied people with mental illness in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in modern-day Germany. Kraepelin's examination and description of the symptoms and outcomes of mental illness formed the basis for his classification of psychiatric disorders into two main groups, dementia praecox, now called schizophrenia, and manic-depressive psychosis, now called bipolar disorder. He was one of the first physicians to suggest that those researching mental illness should gain scientific knowledge only through close observation and description. However, Kraepelin also believed that genetics played a role in the development and course of mental illness and characterized mentally ill people as weak-willed, which some have argued contributed to stigma about mental illnesses that persist today. Although some historians have pointed out issues with Kraepelin’s teachings, Kraepelin helped to establish psychiatry as a clinical science, which prompted future experimental investigations into mental illness.

In 2011, fetal researcher Vivette Glover published “Annual Research Review: Prenatal Stress and the Origins of Psychopathology: An Evolutionary Perspective,” hereafter, “Prenatal Stress and the Origins of Psychopathology,” in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. In that article, Glover explained how an evolutionary perspective may be useful in understanding the effects of fetal programming. Fetal programming is a hypothesis that attempts to explain how factors during pregnancy can affect fetuses after birth. Researchers associate exposure to prenatal stress, or stress experienced before birth, with an increased likelihood of some mental disorders. Glover states that such outcomes may be traced back to a fetus’s response to stress during pregnancy, and that those outcomes may have been beneficial in the past. By taking an evolutionary approach toward understanding mental disorders, Glover provided insights for studying the lasting effects of maternal stress during pregnancy on children’s mental health.

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