People tend to think of autism as being a modern phenomenon because it has become so much more prevalent in recent years; but it's actually been acknowledged for more than 100 years and our thinking about it has changed dramatically during that time. Here are some key events in autism history:

1908: The word autism is used to describe a subset of schizophrenic patients who were especially withdrawn and self-absorbed.

1943: American child psychiatrist Leo Kanner, M.D., publishes a paper describing 11 children who were highly intelligent but displayed "a powerful desire for aloneness" and "an obsessive insistence on persistent sameness." He later names their condition "early infantile autism” which is often referred to as “Kanner’s Syndrome”

1944: A German scientist named Hans Asperger describes a "milder" form of autism now known as Asperger's Syndrome. The cases he reported were all boys who were highly intelligent but had trouble with social interactions and specific obsessive interests.

1967: Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim popularizes the theory that "refrigerator mothers," as he termed them, caused autism by not loving their children enough. This is later proven to be completely false.

1977: Research on twins finds that autism is largely caused by genetics and environmental factors which cause biological differences in brain development.

1978: Lorna Wing identifies the ‘Triad of Impairment’ as a tool for diagnosing autism. This is thought to contribute to the sharp increases in autism diagnosis over the following 40 years and remains a core diagnostic tool to this day.

1988: The movie Rain Man is released. It stars Dustin Hoffman as an autistic savant who has a photographic memory and can calculate huge numbers in his head. Although the film raises public awareness of autism, people generally agree that it is not an accurate reflection of how life is experienced by people on the spectrum.

1998: A study published in The Lancet suggests that the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine causes autism. This finding was quickly debunked and the researcher, Andrew Wakefield, is struck off the British medical register for falsifying research. There is now mountains of evidence that there is no link between autism and MMR or any other vaccine currently in use. Some people still believe there is a link and this continues to be a controversial area of debate

2005: Although previously identified, increasing amounts of research demonstrate sensory differences as a key aspect of the autism spectrum and this revolutionises the way we support and view people on the spectrum. Sensory differences are now widely referred to as ‘the 4th characteristic’.

2009: The Autism Act becomes part of UK legislation. The aim of the act is to ensure all public services are able to effectively meet the needs of autistic people.

2017: Leeds Autism Diagnostic Service (LADS) releases research that over a five-year period (2012-2017) they have diagnosed as many women as men. In the past, autism was thought to predominantly affect males. However, this is likely to be due to differences in how women with autism behave, and lack of knowledge and research around autism and women. It is predicted that national diagnosis rates will reflect the findings of the team in Leeds.

Present day: People are starting to view autism not as a 'disorder', but as a different way of thinking, which can bring benefits as well as difficulties. This has led not only to increased understanding and acceptance of autism, but has also empowered people on the spectrum to shed the stigma that they may have carried in the past. Within some sections of the media and society, there are increased calls for us all to recognise different ways of thinking as an important part of our social fabric. The term coined to acknowledge these differences is ‘neurodiversity’