The Education of Autistic Children, 1950-1975

This post will focus on the education of autistic children in the period between 1950 (shortly after Leo Kanner’s original articles on autism were published) and 1975, the year in which the groundbreaking Education for All Handicapped Children Act was passed.


This is a complicated topic to unpack, because the vast majority of adults considered autistic today did not have that label when they were children, back in the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s.  Most adults now diagnosed with “high functioning autism” or with “Aspergers Syndrome,”[1] would never have been considered autistic in childhood because they did not meet Kanner’s strict diagnostic criteria (the only criteria then recognized in the United States).  They might have been considered “weird” or “eccentric” by those around them, but they usually had no formal diagnosis.  (An exception was Temple Grandin, famous today for her work in animal science and her advocacy on behalf of people with autism.  Her diagnosis in childhood was “brain-damaged”—only much later was it recognized that she was autistic. [2])  On the other hand, most adults who are today described as “low-functioning” autistics were incorrectly diagnosed in childhood as either psychotic, or intellectually disabled (“mentally retarded” in the language of the period), or both.  Only a tiny number of children who happened to come to the attention of the small number of researchers interested in the subject, and who met Kanner’s criteria, were ever actually diagnosed as “autistic.”  What this means is that we will need to distinguish in what follows between the ways in which these three groups—those who could pass as more or less “normal,” those who were considered either mentally retarded or mentally ill, and the tiny number actually diagnosed as “autistic”—were educated in the past.


Before 1975, most undiagnosed “high-functioning” autistics attended the same schools as their siblings, and usually without any support services, unless they had additional disabilities, or unless some thoughtful teacher came to their assistance.  A few of them flourished.  Others report that they struggled painfully through the system, wrestling with learning problems that neither they nor their teachers understood.  Stephen Shore, who now has a Ph.D. in Special Education and holds a faculty position at Adelphi University, remembers that in public school he was usually behind the other children in math and reading.  Indeed, Shore’s first grade teacher told his parents that he would never be able to do math.  (In college, however, he successfully completed calculus and statistics, and earned a degree in accounting).[3]  It is surprising, in fact, how many autistic adults report struggling with math in childhood, given the widespread assumption today that autistics are somehow more attuned to math than to studies that require sophisticated use of language.  Dawn Prince-Hughes (who later earned a Ph.D. in Anthropology, became an expert in primate behavior, and wrote a number of books on that subject) recalls the horrible year in third grade when she both developed severe asthma and encountered a particularly unsympathetic teacher.  This teacher punished her for her unexplained failings in math by refusing to let her engage in the reading and writing assignments at which she excelled.  The teacher also announced to the entire third-grade class Prince’s failing math grades, as well as the fact that she was being tested for mental retardation.[4]

In addition to their academic struggles, these undiagnosed children almost always suffered from horrendous bullying from both teachers and classmates.[5]   Real and threatened beatings, tripping, pushing, being shut in lockers, suffering “swirlies” in the toilet and other forms of humiliation, and every kind of insult were commonplace.[6]  For some, this was simply the way things were:  “It never occurred to me at that time to talk to my parents about the problem of bullying in school and the teachers never told them either.  I accepted it as a fact of life.”[7]  Others were driven to retaliate.  After years in elite private schools for girls, Temple Grandin finally got tired of being called names.  When one of her seventh-grade classmates called out, “Retard!  You’re nothing but a retard!”, Grandin threw a book at her, hitting her in the face.  She was expelled from the school as a result.[8]  A few of the children became bullies themselves. [9]  Still others, like John Elder Robison, simply found it too difficult to cope with the sensory and social stresses of school, and dropped or failed out.[10]


But what about the other two groups, the tiny few with an actual autism diagnosis, and the much larger number considered mentally retarded or psychotic?  Before 1975, these children seldom received much schooling at all.  Some parents attempted to place their diagnosed child in the public schools, but the experiment seldom lasted more than a few months before the child was either withdrawn or expelled.[11]   A few well-informed or well-connected families managed to get their child into one of a handful of educational establishments designed specifically for the “severely damaged” or “profoundly disabled.”[12]  These establishments tended to focus on teaching functional living skills (toileting, dressing, speaking), but they sometimes offered the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic for the children who who it was believed could manage those subjects.[14]  Charles Martel Hale, Jr., for example, who was non-verbal and labelled at the time “severely to profoundly mentally retarded,” attended an apparently high quality programs in Queens, New York in the early to mid 1970s. He was taught some living skills, but no academics.  However, long before he finally learned to communicate on the computer and typewriter in the 1990s, he had already taught himself to add, subtract and multiply by listening to conversations and television programs.[13]

However, most “autistic,” “psychotic” or “mentally retarded” children were—on the advice of doctors and other professionals—swiftly shunted into psychiatric institutions or homes for the “feeble-minded,” and left to fend for themselves.[15]  Tom McKean, who had attended general education classrooms in his neighborhood school from kindergarten through third grade, before being transferred to classes for the Learning Disabled, was finally diagnosed as autistic in seventh grade and promptly transferred to a psychiatric institution.[16]  Many of the institutions in which these children were confined called themselves “schools,” but few offered much in the way of an education.  They might provide various forms of vocational training, so that residents could help “earn their keep.”  Most, though, were simply warehouses, where autistic children (along with many others) lived in ignorance and squalor, exposed to hunger, cold, and disease, and subject to abuse by older children and adult inmates and staff.[18]



[1] The labels “high-functioning” and “low-functioning,” although very widely used today, bear very little relationship to reality and should probably be avoided—although that is the subject for another post.  The latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of the American Psychological Association no longer recognizes Aspergers Syndrome as a diagnostic category.  However, the phrase is still common in everyday usage.

[2] Temple Grandin and Richard Panek, “The Autistic Brain:  The origins of the diagnosis of autism—and the parental guilt-tripping that went along with it,” Slate Magazine (May, 2013):

[3] Stephen Shore, Beyond the Wall:  Personal Experiences with Autism and Asperger Syndrome (Shawnee Mission, KS:  Autism Asperger Publishing Co., 2002;  2nd ed. 2003), p. 53.

[4] Dawn Prince-Hughes, Songs of the Gorilla Nation:  My Journey through Autism (New York:  Random House, 2004), pp. 41-44.   Liane Holliday Willey also reports that she “hated and was terrible in math:”  Pretending to Be Normal:  Living with Aspergers Syndrome (London:  Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 1999; expanded ed., 2014), p. 47.

[5] Sparrow Rose Jones, “Autistic Pride Day 2015—Letter to Myself as a Child,” on the Unstrange Mind blog: .

[6] There will be more on this topic in another post.

[7] Stephen Shore, Beyond the Wall:  Personal Experiences with Autism and Asperger Syndrome (Shawnee Mission, KS:  Autism Asperger Publishing Co., 2002;  2nd ed. 2003), p. 56.

[8] Temple Grandin, with Margaret Scariano, Emergence:  Labeled Autistic  (Novato, CA:  Arena Press, 1986; reissued with additional material:  New York:  Grand Central Press, 2005), pg. 68.

[9] Cynthia Kim, Nerdy, Shy and Socially Inappropriate:  A User Guide to an Asperger Life (London and Philadelphia:  Jessica Kingsley, 2015), pp. 12-17.

[10] John Elder Robison, Look Me in the Eye:  My Life with Aspergers (New York:  Broadway Books, 2007), pp. 85-94.

[11] On the exclusion from school of children with an autism diagnosis before 1975, see Anne Donnellan, “An Educational Perspective on Autism: Implications for Curriculum Development and Personnel Development,” in Barbara Wilson and Anneke Thompson, eds., Critical Issues in Educating Autistic Children and Youth (Washington, DC:  United States Department of Education, 1980), p. 53.  For an example of a diagnosed child who spent a short while in the public schools, see Jules Bemporad, “Adults Recollections of a Formerly Autistic Child,” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 9 (1979), p. 184.  Incidentally, the word “formerly” in the article title does not refer to any form of “recovery” from autism.  Instead, the child whose life is recounted has turned into an adult and Bemporad seems unwilling to describe an adult as “autistic.”

[12] E.g., Rud Turnbull, III, The Exceptional Life of Jay Turnbull:  Disability and Dignity in America, 1967-2009 (Amherst, MA:  White Poppy Press, 2011), Chapter 2.

[13] Charles Martel Hale, Jr., “I Had No Means to Shout” (Bloomington, IN:  1stBooks Library, 1999.

[14] The individual interviewed by Jules Bemporad (note 11 above), learned to multiply in such a school—this skill later provided him with great satisfaction. But his school was exceptional.

[15] Wendlyn Alter, “You’ve Come a Long Way Baby:  An Interview with Jerry Alter,” Chalice (April-May, 2014), pp. 11-15, describes how her brother Jerry was hospitalized at the age of 5.

[16] Thomas McKean, Soon Will Come the Light:  A View from Inside the Autism Puzzle (Arlington, TX:  Future Horizons, 1994; 2nd ed. 2001), pp. 3-5.

[18] More on these institutions in a later post.


One thought on “The Education of Autistic Children, 1950-1975

  1. Fascinating! I, too, never had a diagnosis of autism until I was out of school. I was the weird girl, the one who drew faces on her hands and made them talk to each other (I was bored in class, already knew how to read and read my primers in an evening). Wish I did have the label. Would have saved me a lot of tears! Anyway, thanks for your posting!

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