Evolution of Autism Research

Research and understanding of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have evolved in recent decades. In this piece, we explore research findings using one representative article from each decade from 1990 to 2020.

The rate of identifying people as being on the autism spectrum disorder spectrum has been increasing in recent years — and so has the language we use to describe it and the practices we use to work with it.

In 2016, one in 54 eight year-olds were estimated to be on the autism spectrum in the United States. That year, ASD was found to be 4.3 times more prevalent in boys than girls (Maenner, et. al, 2020). 

According to the DSM-V (American Psychiatric Association, 2013), ASD is a neurodevelopmental disorder impacting human development, which in turn can have wide-ranging social, academic, occupational, and personal functioning impacts on the child. As such, understanding ASD through interactions of theoretical, empirical, and interdisciplinary methods is key to creating appropriate learning environments for this population.

We chose three articles to track neurological theories, research, and technological developments related to the ASD population without intellectual impairment from 1991 to the present. Shifts in language and study construction, parameters, and methodology were observed. 

As noted below, language used by researchers in the field evolved from terms with negative implications to more neutral terms describing ASD differences compared to other groups over the three decades. Minshew and Goldstein (1998) used terms such as “abnormalities,” “deficits,” and “non-mentally retarded” in their paper, likely reflecting prevalent cultural views on ASD. From the 2000s onward, as exampled by the Iarocci...


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About Lin Lim-Goh

Lin Lim, Ph.D. is a founding board member of the Texas non-profit Gifted Education Family Network, and currently serves on the national non-profit board of Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted (SENG). She has a doctorate in human development from the psychology department at Boston University. In recent years, she has become very interested in the ecology of gifted and twice-exceptional parenting, and talent development. She has completed a Graduate Academic Certificate in twice-exceptional education from Bridges Graduate School of Cognitive diversity in Education in 2020, and will complete a Graduate Academic Certificate in Mind, Brain and Teaching from Johns Hopkins Graduate School of Education in May 2021.