Hans Asperger I (1906-80)
Bill Long 12/7/07
'Autistic Psychopathy' in Childhood, His 1944 Article
Leo Kanner's 1943 study "Autistic Disturbances in Affective Contact," and Hans Asperger's 1944 study are the twin pillars holding up the "temple" of early autism research. But Asperger's study, done in Vienna during the height of WWII, was not translated into English until 1991, and thus escaped the notice of all but a highly-trained coterie of autism researchers until 16 or 17 years ago. His generative article, translated by Dr. Uta Frith, appears in Autism and Asperger Syndrome, ed. by Uta Frith (Cambridge, 1991), pp. 37-92. The remarkable coincidence of two independently-written articles on autism appearing in 1943 and 1944 has often been mentioned: indeed, it is strikingly similar to independent experiments among scientists that have led to major breakthroughs in our understanding of the world [for example the 1976 Nobel Prize in Physics was jointly given to an East Coast scientist--Samuel Ting--and a West Coast scientist--Burton Richter-- who had quite independently of each other and almost in the same month postulated the existence of the smallest particle known to humanity].
Kanner's and Asperger's work have often been compared and contrasted, but the only point I would make at the outset is that Asperger's article described only 4 case studies while Kanner looked at 11, and Asperger seemed to be more fascinated with expressions of autism among people who were highly capable in one aspect of human activity. That is, Asperger was more interested in the "exceptional" nature of the people he studied; his point was that they should be given "exceptional educational treatment, treatment which takes account of their special difficulties," (p. 37). That, more than anything, is the reason why higher-functioning individuals with autistic spectrum disorders are today called "Aspies" or those with Asperger Syndrome.
Asperger's Work--in Context
I was almost going to say above that the coincidence of the independent production of the 1943 and 1944 studies is almost unKanner..uncanny. But the indebtedness is the same: both Kanner and Asperger recognize that they are not pioneers in the use of the term "autism." Thus, Asperger also has to deal with Eugen Bleuler's use of the term. We recall that Bleuler used the term to describe the defining feature of schizophrenia. Autism was a withdrawal from reality into fantasy. In Bleuler's understanding, this withdrawal may even have been a "willed" withdrawal. So, that is the "slate" or "template" on which Asperger is working as he does his study in wartime Vienna.
Thus, as Asperger begins his article, he has to situate himself within the Bleuler-given vocabulary. He says:
"I have chosen the label autism [Frith notes the variety of ways the term could be translated. I suppose underlying the English word is autistische Psychopathie] in an effort to define the basic disorder that generates the abnormal personality structure of the children we are concerned with here," 37-38.
But then, he must immediately go to Bleuler, and he bows at the sacred shrine:
"The name 'autism,' coined by Bleuler, is undoubtedly one of the great linguistic and conceptual creations in medical nomenclature," 38.
Usually in scholarly literature when someone praises a predecessor so effusively it will be to differentiate his/her work from the predecessor. It is a sort of "I stand on the shoulders of giants" argument--but I can still see farther than the giant..." So he begins with an extensive quotation from Bleuler on schizophrenia and autism, ending with the idea that "schizophrenic patients often live in an imaginary world of wish fulfillment and ideas of persecution."
Just as Kanner broke from Bleuler on this notion of a withdrawal into fantasy, so does Asperger.
"However, this type of thinking does not play a role in the children we are concerned with here," 38.
But still he has to deal with Bleuler's point about the connection of autism to schizophrenia. Asperger comments:
"While the schizophrenic patient seems to show progressive loss of contact, the children we are discussing lack contact from the start. Autism is the paramount feature in both cases. It totally colours affect, intellect, will, and action... However, unlike schizophrenic patients, our children do not show a disintegration of personality. They are therefore not psychotic, instead they show a greater or lesser degree of psychopathy," 39.
To be sure, there are similarities between autism and schizophrenia: "the shutting-off of relations between self and the outside world." But that is where the similarity stops.
Conclusion on Method
By the time he gave his four examples, then, Asperger has cleared the methodological decks. It is as if he is saying that the terminology and categorization of Bleuler, the one who coined the term "autism," is severely cramped. A new understanding therefore is desirable, an understanding that emerges from clinical observation and conclusion. Of course the clinical cases will be seen through the lenses of the clinician, but without the conceptual world of Bleuler blocking the observation.
Let's turn to Asperger's four cases now. Our final essay will concern his conclusions.