Kanner and Asperger: Two Autism Pioneers #AtoZChallenge

Hi readers, it’s Monday again! Welcome to another day in the A to Z Challenge, in which I focus on autism. Today, I will discuss the two autism pioneers, Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger.

The term “autism” comes form the Greek word “autos”, meaning “self”, and describes people who are particularly withdrawn. The term has been in use for about 100 years. It was first used by Eugen Bleuler, a Swiss psychiatrist, to describe a subset of symptoms of schizophrenia.

Leo Kanner was born in 1894 in a small village in Austria-Hungary. He came to the United States and became a child psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins University. In 1943, he published a paper called Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact. In this paper, he described eleven children who had a strong desire for aloneness and obsessive insistence on sameness.

Also from Austria-Hungary, Hans Asperger was born in 1906. In 1944, he published a description of “autistic psychopathy”. Children with “autistic psychopathy” were described as displaying a lack of empathy, little ability to form friendships, one-sided conversations, intense absorption in a special interest, and clumsy movement.

Unlike Kanner’s, Asperger’s work remained largely unknown. In 1981, Lorna Wing did write about Asperger’s Syndrome and thereby challenged Kanner’s original definiton of autism. Asperger’s work was eventually translated into English in 1991.

Despite common belief, Kanner’s and Asperger’s disorders as originally described were quite similar. Kanner’s original children were mostly highly intelligent. One reason that Asperger highlighted this, calling his children “little professors”, while Kanner didn’t, might be that Asperger resided in then occupied Austria. Given that children with disabilities were often killed by the Nazis, Asperger might’ve had a motive to present the children he described in as positive terms as possible.

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