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Annual Research Review: Looking back to look forward – changes in the concept of autism and implications for future research

Research output: Contribution to journalReview article

Francesca Happé, Uta Frith

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)218-232
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2020

King's Authors


The concept of autism is a significant contribution from child psychiatry that has entered wider culture and public consciousness, and has evolved significantly over the last four decades. Taking a rather personal retrospective, reflecting on our own time in autism research, this review explores changes in the concept of autism and the implications of these for future research. We focus on seven major changes in how autism is thought of, operationalised, and recognised: (1) from a narrow definition to wide diagnostic criteria; (2) from a rare to a relatively common condition, although probably still under-recognised in women; (3) from something affecting children, to a lifelong condition; (4) from something discreet and distinct, to a dimensional view; (5) from one thing to many ‘autisms’, and a compound or ‘fractionable’ condition; (6) from a focus on ‘pure’ autism, to recognition that complexity and comorbidity is the norm; and finally, (7) from conceptualising autism purely as a ‘developmental disorder’, to recognising a neurodiversity perspective, operationalised in participatory research models. We conclude with some challenges for the field and suggestions for areas currently neglected in autism research.

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