Early infantile autism: a language disorder

Kanner described eleven children suffering from a syndrome which he called, "early infantile autism." These children were characterized by an inability to relate themselves to others, failure to develop speech, rote memories and ritualistic, compulsive and stereotyped behavior. Since that description three distinct positions have surfaced--autism viewed as a psychogenic, a neurological, or a behavior disorder. Due to these theoretical differences, little agreement exists as to diagnosis, etiology, and treatment. All writers have commented on the speech disorders but see them as only one aspect of a larger and more complex syndrome. They have noted that meaningful communicative speech is the best prognosis for subsequent recovery. It is the contention of this paper that such children suffer from a central language disorder. The communication problem does not reside only in impaired speech but also in a disturbance of language--the ability to encode-decode sense experiences and extrapolate from recurrent relevant stimulus a common pattern or rule. Recent developments in psycholinguistics make such a hypothesis attractive in explaining and integrating the major features of autism: impairments of relationships, communication and appropriate object use. The autistic child faces the problem of language learning, that is, of mastering a symbolic code. Evidence and arguments are presented in support of the view.