Excerpts from “I Am Not Broken”
By : Eric Garcia
National Journal, 9 Dec 2015
PSYCHIATRIST EUGEN BLEULER first used the word “autism” in 1910; he viewed it as a symptom of schizophrenia.
Thirty-three years later, a child psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins University Hospital named LEO KANNER introduced his work on early infantile autism. His first major study on the subject was based on observations of 11 children—eight of them verbal and three of them what he called “mute.” He found that all the children had strong intellectual capacity and “excellent rote memory,” which enabled them to memorize things like a French lullaby, Psalm 23, or an index page of an encyclopedia.
But he also noted that when they formed sentences, these sentences were parroted repetitions of previously heard word combinations. Loud noises and moving objects, he found, caused the children great distress. In addition, he noted that “the child’s behavior is governed by an anxiously obsessive desire for sameness.”
Around the same time, another docfor—HANS ASPERGER was conducting his own work across the Atlantic in Vienna, on what he called “autistic psychopathy.” In a 1944 study, Asperger noticed patterns in the boys he observed, including “a lack of empathy, little ability to form friendships, one-sided conversation, intense absorption in a special interest, and clumsy movements.”
Asperger saw “autistic psychopathy” as something that occurred across a wide variety of people. By contrast, according to Steve Silberman, author of Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, Kanner saw autism as a very rare form of child psychosis and “framed his patients as a strictly defined and monolithic group, to the point of being willing to overlook significant differences between them.”
During the last leg of World War II, a school Asperger had opened for children with “autistic psychopathy” was bombed, destroying much of his research. Asperger continued working after the war and lived until 1980, but much of his writing went untranslated from its original German.
Then, in 1981, LORNA WING, a doctor working in the United Kingdom and the mother of a daughter with autism, used Asperger’s 1944 study—which “had never been translated into English,” according to Silberman—as the basis for her own study, “Asperger Syndrome: A Clinical Account.” Wing’s work was instrumental in shaping discussions about the autism spectrum.
Here in the United States, the American Psychiatric Association did not have separate criteria for diagnosing “infantile autism” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until 1980; and it wasn’t until 1987, that there was an expanded diagnosis for “autistic disorder.”