Ever since Johns Hopkins professor Leo Kanner described a condition he called autism in his seminal 1943 paper,”Autistic Disturbances of Affective Conduct,” most professionals and laypeople alike had an impression of autism as being characteristic of highly disturbed, poorly functioning children – and a rare condition, at that.
Then, the following year and an ocean and a world away, a doctor in Vienna, then part of Nazi-occupied Austria, portrayed autistic children of a radically different type. The Viennese doctor’s name was Hans Asperger; his paper, however, would remain virtually unknown for nearly a half century. In fact, “Autistic Psychopathy in Childhood” first appeared in English translation in 1991. This extremely important book, Autism and Asperger Syndrome, presents Uta Frith’s translation for the very first time, all in context of her commentary and a series of other papers by other important researchers. Most notable is Dr. Lorna Wing, who developed and advocated for the term autism spectrum, especially notable here in that Kanner’s and Asperger’s descriptions of the same condition vary so considerably, this book describing the higher-functioning form of autism that bears Asperger’s name.
Most notable is that, “far from despising the misfits, he devoted himself to their cause – and this at a time when allegiance to misfits was nothing less than dangerous.” It bears remembering that Nazism espoused putting people with genetic deformities, such as cognitive disabilities, to death; Nazi ideology deemed these people not worth the bread they ate and a threat to the genetic future of the Aryan race. By caring and advocating for these children, Dr. Asperger was risking his life.
Going further, “Asperger’s views on the positive value of autism as an important aspect of creative thought and intellectual style are … fresh and provocative.” In fact, Asperger’s 1944 writing and Frith’s 1991 commentary presaged the current neurodiversity movement, beautifully expressed in Steve Silberman’s “fresh and provocative” book Neurotribes.
In Hans Asperger’s paper, it is worth noting his comment that “…those who know such children never cease to be surprised at the striking coincidences of detail. The autistic personality is highly distinctive despite wide individual differences. Our method would have failed if it ignored the differences and if it let each child’s unique personality vanish behind the type.” This observation leads us to the second important paper in this volume, that of Lorna Wing, in which she compares the work of Drs. Asperger and Kanner and outlines her groundbreaking theory of autism being a spectrum of abilities while sharing important characteristics. Though the other four papers are worth reading as well, these first three make this book, nearly a quarter-century old, essential reading on autism.