History of Autism


Asperger studied medicine in Vienna and became employed as a member of the University Children's Hospital in Vienna. He married in 1935 and had five children. Contemporary photographs show that he had "a frank, earnest face, glamorous in its way, with a full head of curly hair and intense spectacles".

It is not certain what Asperger did during the early years of World War II. In the later years of the war he was a medical officer in Croatia; his younger brother died in Stalingrad. In 1944, after the publication of his landmark paper describing autistic symptoms, he found a permanent tenured post at the University of Vienna. Shortly after the war ended, he became director of a children's clinic in the city. He was appointed Chair of Pediatrics at the University of Vienna, a post he held for 20 years. He also later held a post at Innsbruck. Then, beginning in 1964, he headed the SOS-Kinderdorf in Hinterbrühl.

Asperger syndrome

Asperger published the first definition of Asperger syndrome in 1944. In four boys, he identified a pattern of behavior and abilities that he called "autistic psychopathy", meaning autism (self) and psychopathy (personality disease). The pattern included "a lack of empathy, little ability to form friendships, one-sided conversation, intense absorption in a special interest, and clumsy movements." Asperger called children with AS "little professors" because of their ability to talk about their favorite subject in great detail. It is commonly said that the paper was based on only four boys. However, Dr. Günter Krämer, of Zürich, who knew Asperger, states that it "was based on investigations of more than 400 children".

Asperger was convinced that many of the children he identified as having autistic symptoms would use their special talents in adulthood. He followed one child, Fritz V., into adulthood. Fritz V. became a professor of astronomy and solved an error in Newton’s work he originally noticed as a child. Hans Asperger’s positive outlook contrasts strikingly with Leo Kanner's description of autism, of which Asperger syndrome is often considered to be a high-functioning form. In his 1944 paper, Asperger wrote:
“We are convinced, then, that autistic people have their place in the organism of the social community. They fulfil their role well, perhaps better than anyone else could, and we are talking of people who as children had the greatest difficulties and caused untold worries to their care-givers. ”

Near the end of World War II, Asperger opened a school for children with autistic psychopathy, with Sister Victorine. The school was bombed towards the end of the war, Sister Victorine was killed, the school was destroyed and much of Hans Asperger's early work was lost. It was this event that arguably delayed the understanding of autism spectrum conditions in the west.
Interestingly, as a child, Hans Asperger appears to have exhibited features of the very condition named after him. He was described as a remote and lonely child, who had difficulty making friends. He was talented in language; in particular he was interested in the Austrian poet Franz Grillparzer, whose poetry he would frequently quote to his uninterested classmates. He also liked to quote himself and often referred to himself from a third-person perspective.

Asperger died before his identification of this pattern of behavior became widely recognized, because his work was mostly in German and barely translated. The term "Asperger's syndrome" was popularized in a 1981 paper by British researcher Lorna Wing, which challenged the previously accepted model of autism presented by Leo Kanner in 1943. Unlike Kanner, Hans Asperger's findings were ignored and disregarded in the English-speaking world in his lifetime. Finally, from the early 1990s, his findings began to gain notice, and nowadays Asperger syndrome is recognized as a diagnosis in a large part of the world.






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