Autism Basics

Autism Awareness

Kim Peek is a well-known savant and was the inspiration for the title character of "Rain Man."
Kim Peek is a well-known savant and was the inspiration for the title character of "Rain Man."
Image courtesy Kim Peek, Darold A. Treffert, M.D. and Wisconsin Medical Society

From the 1950s until the 1980s, a prevailing theory about the cause of autism was that it stemmed from bad parenting -- the so-called "refrigerator mother theory" (meaning the mother is emotionally cold) put forth by child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim. Today, we know this is untrue. Autistic children aren't poorly raised -- they are born with an inherited susceptibility to the condition.

Autistic children also are not badly behaved -- their temper tantrums and other unusual behaviors stem from their frustration in being unable to effectively communicate and interact socially. They are not dumb, either; in fact, some autistic children are extremely gifted in one or more areas.

A common misconception is that people with autism are slow or mentally retarded. In fact, a small percentage of people with ASDs are remarkably gifted. Consider Kim Peek, the inspiration for Dustin Hoffman's character, Raymond Babbitt, in the 1988 film, "Rain Man." Peek has read more than 7,000 books, and can recall with photographic accuracy more than 80 percent of their contents. Given a person's date of birth, he can immediately produce the day of the week on which the person was born. London-born author and math whiz Daniel Tammet can recite the number pi to more than 20,000 digits, and fluently speaks 10 languages. He's even invented his own language, Manti.

There are also people who were diagnosed with autism as a child but may actually have Pervasive Developmental Disorder - Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS). Dr. Temple Grandin, a professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University, is a famous example of a person who overcame autism and became highly successful. Dr. Grandin has designed livestock handling facilities used throughout the world, written four books -- including a New York Times bestseller -- and appeared on numerous TV and radio shows.

For lots more information about autism, autism spectrum disorders and related topics, check out the links below.

Related Articles

More Great Links


  • "Are Autism Cases on the Rise in the U.S.?" HealthDay, Feb. 16, 2007.
  • Associated Press via New York Times. "Study Linking Vaccine to Autism is Called Fraud." Jan. 6, 2011. (March 14, 2011)
  • "Autism and Genes." National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
  • Autism Fact Sheet. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
  • Autism Information Center: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  • Autism Society of America
  • "Autism Spectrum Disorders." National Institute of Mental Health.
  • "Biomedical and Dietary Approaches." Autism Society of America. pagename=about_treatment_biomedical
  • Blakemore, Bill. "Study Suggests Autism Causes are Genetic."
  • "CDC Research on Vaccines & Autism." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • CNN. "Retracted autism study an 'elaborate fraud,' British journal finds." Jan. 5, 2011. (March 14, 2011)
  • Edelson, Stephen M., Ph.D., "Theory of Mind." Center for the Study of Autism.
  • Hertz-Picciotto, Irva, et al. "The CHARGE Study: An Epidemiologic Investigation of Genetic and Environmental Factors Contributing to Autism." Environmental Health Perspectives, Volume 114, Number 7, July 2006, page 1119.
  • Kalb, Claudia. "When Does Autism Start?" Newsweek, February 28, 2005. Volume 145, pgs. 45-51.
  • "Largest-Ever Search for Autism Genes Reveals New Clues." National Institutes of Health, Feb. 18, 2007.
  • Lyall, Sarah. "Brainman, At Rest in his Oasis." The New York Times, Feb. 15, 2007.
  • Ma, D. Q., et al. "Identification of Significant Association and Gene-Gene Interaction of GABA Receptor Subunit Genes in Autism." American Journal of Human Genetics, September 2005, Volume 77, pg. 377.
  • The Medical/Psychiatric Diagnosis of Autism: The DSM-IV Criteria
  • MMR Vaccine and Autism Fact Sheet. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • NAAR Autism Genome Project: Fact Sheet
  • "Prevalence of the Autism Spectrum Disorders in Multiple Areas of the United States, Surveillance Years 2000 and 2002." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • "Prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorders." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 476B-92EF-73240E60AF4D%7D/070208_CDC _MMWR_ASD_prevalence.pdf
  • "Study Provides Evidence that Autism Affects Functioning of Entire Brain." National Institutes of Health, Aug. 16, 2006. from=autism
  • "Technical Report: The Pediatrician's Role in the Diagnosis and Management of Autistic Spectrum Disorder in Children." American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Children with Disabilities. Pediatrics, Vol. 107, No. 5, May 2001.
  • Wallis, Claudia. "Inside the Autistic Mind." Time, May 15, 2006. Vol. 167, pgs. 42-48.