Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Samuel Howe and Autism in Early America

Samuel G. Howe
Samuel Howe and his wife, Julia Ward, are known to students of the Civil War as supporters of abolition. Samuel secretly raised funds for John Brown's violent guerrilla campaign against slavery. After she visited Abraham Lincoln at the White House in November of 1861, Julia composed a set of verses that became the "Battle Hymn of the Republic."

Samuel's greatest achievement was founding the Perkins School for the Blind in 1832.  Howe was the Watertown, Massachusetts school's first and long-time director and designer of its revolutionary curriculum. He believed that blind people can and should be educated. He believed that all people can be improved, including those with physical impairments.

Perkins School for the Blind
Based on his success with blind students, Howe decided to prove that "so-called idiots" could learn and deserved a school to provide this education. In 1846, Howe supported by friends in the Massachusetts legislature, decided to conduct a survey of "intellectually impaired" people "to ascertain whether anything can be done for their relief."

Research conducted by authors John Donvan and Caren Zucker, for their book In a Different Key: The Story of Autism, suggested that autism was the diagnosis for the symptoms reported in Howe's surveys. Howes' 1848 "Report Made to the Legislature of Massachusetts upon Idiocy" includes "signals of classic autistic behavior so breathtakingly recognizable to anyone familiar with the condition's manifestations that they cannot be ignored." Howe and his colleagues surveyed 474 people in 63 towns. The 45 pages of data include numerous measurements and evaluations of intellectual and verbal capacities. Based on his findings, Howe estimated that Massachusetts had 1,200 "idiots." Howe believed that "No person familiar with these cases would be likely to mistake them for idiots."

Julia Ward
The State of Massachusetts appropriated $2,500 for Howe to admit ten mentally disabled students at Perkins. He proved that they could be educated and established the Massachusetts School for the Feeble-Minded."

In his 1848 report, Howe expressed that his data would be used by future generations to understand mental disabilities. He wrote, "Science has not yet thrown her certain light upon its remote, or even proximate causes."

(Source: "Autism in Early America," John Donvan and Caren Zucker, Smithsonian, January-February 2016, 114-121.)

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