Sunday, May 12, 2024

Asperger’s autism

Kevin Rebecchi has provided a first English translation and introduction to Hans Asperger’s 1982 chapter ‘Early childhood autism, Asperger type’ published after his death in 1980 (see History of Psychiatry article). Asperger distinguishes his use of the term ‘autistic’ from that of Eugene Bleuler, who gave the name to the apparent impenetrable wall that separated schizophrenic from other people. Leo Kanner separately described what Asperger thought was a rare form of early infantile autism. Asperger differed by seeing people generally as having the ability to behave in an ‘autistic’ manner.

Asperger children were noticeable at school where they were very difficult to discipline and often failed because of their so-called different psyche, being intelligent, highly reflective and observant, seemingly devoid of feelings and yet able to have subtle emotions. Most importantly, it was the visibly limited and self-centred, very idiosyncratic way of dealing with people that was labelled ‘autistic’.

As Rebecchi points out, Lorna Wing introduced the concept of the autistic triad of difficulties in social interaction, communication and imagination and coined the term Asperger’s Syndrome. The study Wing based the autistic triad on was mainly of intellectually disabled children. She disagreed with Asperger and said these children lacked common sense, were not creative but merely logical, did not have high intelligence (several with IQ < 70) and would only repeat things by rote. Asperger’s autism in fact was not really characterised by the autistic triad at all.

Asperger thought the term ‘psychopathy’ applied to the children he described and they were seen as difficult both at home and school. He thought, nonetheless, they should be respected for who they are, and that it was quite wrong to see difficult people who are out of the ordinary as of inferior social value. As far as Asperger was concerned, some autistic people bring much to the world and are “the salt of the earth”. 

As I have said before (see eg. previous post), there is a need for a rethink about autism. It is now seen as part of the umbrella term ‘neurodiversity’ (see another previous post). Its meaning may well have become too vague and restoring understanding, I think, will benefit by looking again at its historical origins, as does Rebecchi.

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