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The 'Discovery' of Autism

Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger were the first to publish accounts of autism, both working independently. They both published accounts with detailed descriptions of different cases, giving theoretical explanations, based on the belief that a fundamental disturbance was present at birth resulting in characteristic problems, both labeling this disorder autism (see introduction), a term used in psychiatry (being from the Greek word autos meaning self).
Kanner first published his paper "Autistic Disturbances of the Effective contact" in the journal Nervous Child in 1943 stating basic features of autistic aloneness, a desire sameness and the final feature of islets of ability. He speaks of autistic aloneness as the "inability to relate themselves in an ordinary way to people and situations from the beginning of life" and an "extreme autistic aloneness ..whenever possible disregarding, ignoring and shutting out anything that comes to the child from outside", also mentioning a strong relation and attachment to objects. Kanner makes not of limitation in spontaneous activities, a repetition in the child's noises, motions and verbal utterances, pointing out the fact that "the child's behavior is governed by an anxiously obsessive desire for the maintenance of sameness." And when speaking of isles of ability, points out the outstanding achievements of some autistic children in certain specific areas.
Asperger, on the other hand, gives detailed, sympathetic descriptions. He, like Kanner suggested a 'disturbance of contact' at some deep level of affect and or instinct. "Both stressed the peculiarities of communication and the difficulties in social adaptation of autistic children." 1
The ideas of Kanner and Asperger overlapped, both recognizing poor social interacting, some outstanding skills in their isolated special interest, a failure of communication, resistance to change, similar behavior of the parents and that highly stereotypical behavior was shown. They both also recognized the need for a clean distinction between autism and childhood schizophrenia. Asperger, in contrast, pointed out the difference pertaining to : Eyegaze, gestures, pasture, voice quality, prosody and word choice shown in non verbal communication. He also stressed the possibility of social adaptation and academic achievement in the children who appeared to be highly original thinkers. 2 This is why it was suggested Kanner was looking at younger children with more blatant communication disorders and Asperger was looking at a select few individuals with autism who had good intellectual skills, creating a 'sub-group' of autism called Asperger's syndrome. Asperger's syndrome is more related to the rare highly intelligent, close to normal autistic child (though it wasn't what Asperger originally intended.)


1. Autism - Explaining the Enigma by Uta Frith 1989 Printed in Great Britain by Billing and Sons Ltd., Worcester
2. Autism and Asperger syndrome by Uta Frith Cambridge University Press 1991, published in the United Kingdom