Philosophical Society of Washington

Autistic Spectrum Disorders

Kenneth Towbin & Ann Wagner
National Institute of Mental Health, NIH

2138th Meeting Abstract
Friday, December 14, 2001 at 8:15 PM


In 1943, Leo Kanner described eleven children with deviations from typical child development he termed "autistic disturbances of affective contact." Kanner emphasized a constellation of symptoms including profound unresponsiveness to social overtures, abnormal expression of social relatedness, severe limitations of both language and nonverbal communication, and persistent engagement in repetitive behavior. Many also displayed marked distress when confronted with changes in routine. This "first cut" formulation has come to be known as "classic autism" or "Kanner's autism". Current science suggests that there is a group of disorders that include Classic Autism but go beyond Kanner's first descriptions. This broader group, which is often viewed as a "spectrum" of disabilities ranges from a group of individuals with profound impairment in both social and cognitive abilities, to those with relatively milder social learning deficits and normal or above normal intelligence. In our discussion we will focus on the phenomenon of this spectrum of disorders, with the goal of giving the audience an idea of what it might be like to raise or live with someone with this disorder, and some insight into what the experience might be like for someone with a social learning disability. We will present an overview of what is known thus far about causes of the disorder. Although there is no cure or one best treatment for autism spectrum disorders yet, there are interventions that can reduce symptoms and promote adaptive functioning. Some of these will be discussed too.

About the Authors:

Kenneth Towbin is a Board Certified child and adolescent psychiatrist who is currently Chief of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in the Mood and Anxiety Disorders Program at the National Institute of Mental Health. Prior to his work at NIMH, Dr. Towbin was the Medical Director of the Autism/PDD Clinic at Children's National Medical Center, working along with Dr. Wagner. As two parts of a critical trio of disciplines, they fashioned an integrated, multidisciplinary team procedure dedicated to the diagnosis and assessment of children with complex social learning disorders.

Ann Wagner is a clinical psychologist, and is Chief of the Autism/PDD Intervention Research Program at the National Institute of Mental Health. Prior to her current position at the NIMH, she was Program Director of the Autism/PDD Clinic at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, DC. Dr. Wagner holds Master's degrees in education and psychology, and attained a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Michigan State University in 1991.

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