complicity from the physician (Czech, 2018). Asperger’s writings have shaped our understanding of the condition and cannot be ignored in the history of autism. As we write, the autism community is adjusting to the shocking new information about Asperger’s role in the evil treatment of disabled children by the Nazi death machine and discussing whether the term ‘Asperger’s syndrome’ (no longer in the diagnostic manuals) is still appropriate and acceptable.
Kanner and Asperger were both foundational to our understanding of autism and their descriptions are similar in many ways. Both men believed the social differences in autism to be innate (in Kanner’s words) or constitutional (as Asperger put it) and to persist through life into adulthood. In addition, Kanner and Asperger both noted the children’s lack of eye contact, their stereotypies of word and movement, and their marked resistance to change. The two authors report the common finding of isolated special interests, often in idiosyncratic objects or topics. Both seem to have been struck by the attractive appearance of the children they saw. Kanner and Asperger make a point of distinguishing the disorder they describe from schizophrenia, on the basis of three features; the improvement rather than deterioration in their patients, the absence of hallucinations and the fact that these children presented as autistic from their earliest years. Lastly, both Kanner and Asperger believed that they had observed similar traits – of social withdrawal or atypicality, intense delight in routine and the pursuit of special interests to the exclusion of all else – in the parents of many of their patients.
There are three main areas in which Asperger’s and Kanner’s reports disagree, if we believe that they were describing the same sort of child. The first and most striking of these is the child’s language abilities. Kanner reported that 3 of his 11 patients never spoke at all and that the other children did not use what language they had to communicate. Asperger, by contrast, reported that each of his four case study patients (and, by implication, most of the unspecified number of such children he met) spoke fluently – even “like little adults”. Asperger notes their “freedom” and “originality” in language use, and reports that two of his four cases had a tendency to tell “fantastic stories”.
Asperger’s description also conflicts with Kanner’s on the subject of motor abilities and coordination. Kanner (1943) reported that “several of the children were somewhat clumsy in gait and gross motor performance, but all were very skillful in terms of finer muscle coordination”. Asperger, by contrast, described all four of his patients as clumsy and recounted their problems not only with school sports (gross coordination) but also with fine motor skills such as writing.
The last area of disagreement in the clinical pictures painted by Asperger and Kanner is that of the child’s learning abilities. Kanner believed that his patients were best at learning rote fashion, but Asperger felt that his patients performed “best when the child can produce spontaneously” and suggests that they are “abstract thinkers”. The same dichotomy can be observed in different approaches to autistic support and education today.
The purpose of this post is to provide alt text for those who cannot read the document that I’ve attatched to the tweet bellow
Autism: A New Introduction to Psychological Theory & Current Debate – Sue Fletcher-Watson & Francesca Happé
Ch 2: The History of Autism; pg 17
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