Lisa Appignanesi at the NYRB:
The term “autistic” originated with the talented Eugen Bleuler, director of the Burghölzli, the pioneering psychiatric hospital in Zurich. In the early part of the twentieth century some of Europe and America’s best physicians spent at least a season there. Bleuler valued Freud’s insights and took a cue from psychoanalysis in his efforts to attend to unconscious mental processes and listen to patients’ words. Among the staff was Carl Jung, whose patient Sabina Spielrein also became a well-known psychoanalytic practitioner and the teacher of the famous psychologist Jean Piaget. Patients were seen individually twice a day: doctors were instructed to write down everything they said, whether or not it sounded like nonsense.
In the detailed description of the group of schizophrenias he included in a 1911 book, Bleuler coined the term “autistic” to characterize thinking—something that, unlike many, he was certain was going on in his patients—and feeling that were more than usually introverted, self-absorbed, and lashed with fantasies.