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Who Invented Autism?

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskeptic
By Neuroskeptic
Apr 28, 2012 3:02 AMNov 5, 2019 12:14 AM


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The concept of "autism" is widely believed to have been first proposed by Leo Kanner in his 1943 article, Autistic Disturbances Of Affective Contact.

But did Kanner steal the idea? That's the question raised in a provocative paper by Nick Chown: ‘History and First Descriptions’ of Autism: A response to Michael Fitzgerald. The piece stems from a debate between Chown and Irish autism expert Michael Fitzgerald, who first made the accusation in a book chapter.

On the evidence presented, I don't think there's good reason to believe that Kanner did "steal" autism, and Chown doesn't seem convinced either. But there's an interesting story here anyway.

Fitzgerald says that in 1938, Hans Asperger - of Asperger's Syndrome fame - gave a series of lectures in Vienna. These were published in a Vienna journal called Wiener Klinischen Wochenzeitschrift as an article called "Das psychisch abnorme kind" ("The mentally abnormal child").

In this article, Asperger put forward the concept of autism. The term was coined by Eugen Bleuler in 1911 in reference to symptoms seen in 'schizophrenia' (he came up with that word too), but that was nothing to do with children.

In 1943, Kanner published his landmark paper, in which he did not mention Asperger. Asperger published his first major description of 'autistic psychopathy' in 1944. The big question, then, is - had Kanner read or heard of Asperger's ideas before 1943?

Asperger was working in Austria while Kanner, although Austrian-born, was in the USA. WW2 would have made it impossible for them to have communicated directly - however, word of Asperger's ideas could have reached Kanner via one of the many European doctors who fled to America, over that period.

There is however no direct evidence that this happened. Fitzgerald makes much of the fact that Kanner opened his 1943 paper by saying "Since 1938, there have come to our attention a number of children..." This could be a reference to Asperger's 1938 work - but Kanner said it referred to his first "diagnosis" of autism, Donald T.

This leaves us with a fluke: two Austrian-born psychiatrists independently discovered the syndrome we now call childhood autism, decided to borrow Bleuler's term "autism" for it, made their first observations in 1938 and first published properly in 1943-1944.

Personally, I think that while that is a remarkable coincidence, such things are not uncommon in science. I see no reason to think that Kanner plagiarized Asperger, although it remains possible. If someone were to discover a copy of Asperger's 1938 article tucked away in one of Kanner's old notebooks, then I'd change my mind, but not before...

Chown, N. (2012). ‘History and First Descriptions’ of Autism: A response to Michael Fitzgerald Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders DOI: 10.1007/s10803-012-1529-5

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