Since its first use in medical literature the meaning of the term autism has constantly changed. An historical overview indicates that in both adult and child psychiatry autism was first used to refer to a symptom of schizophrenia. Later on the use of the term in child psychiatry took a different independent course, which led to present-day conceptualization of autism, mainly due to the work of Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger. Currently autism and autistic disorders are regarded as severe developmental disorders and, due to their stable nature, have gained considerable attention in adult psychiatry. In order to better understand this development, the path from onset to reception is traced via Kanner and Asperger. In the search for central characteristics of autism, one finds restrictions in social communication and interaction, which can be explained by fundamental deficits in social cognition. These restrictions in social cognition can be considered the central characteristic of autism - one which has been a constant since the phenomenon was first described. Our historical review considers to what extent experimental psychopathological research can deepen our understanding of the disorder.