Rewriting Autism History

What does the NAS make of this discovery by Steve Silberman about Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger?

Not only does it cast serious doubt on the notion that Kanner’s discovery was completely independent of Asperger. Of perhaps greater importance, it may help resuscitate the reputation of Asperger—a man whose prescient ideas were long ignored.

Other theories as to why Kanner shunned Asperger’s work are less persuasive. Some historians have believed that Asperger’s work was unknown to Kanner because of the language barrier. But German was Kanner’s native language. Not only that, Kanner was keenly familiar with Archiv für Psychiatrie und Nervenkrankheiten, the neurological journal that published Asperger’s papers, and referenced it many times in his work.

It’s possible that Kanner, as a Jew, found it objectionable that Asperger—through no fault of his own—was working for *** who had taken over his clinic. It could be that Kanner thought Asperger himself was a Nazi, though Silberman argues persuasively he was not.

Once you consider the implications of such buried history, the scope of the tragedy is almost crushing.

But the damage done by Kanner, intentionally or otherwise, is inescapable. For far too long he perpetuated ideas about autistic children that were simply not true. And for too long no one was the wiser. “By burying Asperger in history, Kanner obscured the breadth and diversity of the spectrum,” said Silberman. This, in turn, meant “many children who would have been eligible for a diagnosis under Asperger’s more expansive model of autism were left to struggle along on their own in a world not made for them.”

  • That’s a great article Arran, thanks for posting. 

    I think we have to remember that Kanner did an awful lot of good for a lot of people and he devoted his life to helping individuals with autism and their families. While the article is certainly interesting, I think it’s important we don’t cast any judgements. Nobody is perfect and nobody gets it right all the time, whatever the reason may be. 

    It has sparked my curiosity to do more research and certainly, there’s no doubt that my life would have be different, had I had a diagnosis and relevant support, when I was younger. I won’t deny that. I’m coming to terms with that, slowly, it’s definitely a big deal. 

    I also think it’s important for this information to be made public, as it tells as much about social influence etc as it does about the history of autism. Asperger’s work is extremely important and he deserves credit for it. He too, it seems, was also a remarkable person. 

    I’m interested in this discovery for several reasons but I also acknowledge that if Kanners work did cause a lot of harm, it also caused a lot of good, and so did Asperger’s work. I’m grateful to both of them. I’m also interested how we move forward, as a society, in including autism into society. I’ve got big visions and while I acknowledge challenges, I think we are heading in the right direction. 

    Great discussion everyone. 

  • I also think it’s important for this information to be made public, as it tells as much about social influence etc as it does about the history of autism.

    The article is more than 2 years old.  A good place to start research is Silberman's since-published work 'Neurotribes'.  It's a dense and heavy (for me) read, but fascinating.

  • The article is more than 2 years old. 

    The article was written in 2015. Has the NAS read it yet or have they been spending their time chasing local authorities for money for residential care services instead?

    IMO it is the greatest milestone in the development of ASD since the discovery of Hans Asperger's work itself.

    There are questions about exactly why didn't Leo Kanner go the whole hog and plagiarise the work of Hans Asperger. Did other people in his circles know about Hans Asperger and force him to keep quiet about it for some reason or other?

    I will have to read Neurotribes because it could contain more information about this period of history.