Hans Asperger – Definition

Hans Asperger (February 18, 1906-October 21, 1980) was the Austrian pediatrician after whom Asperger’s Syndrome is named.

Born in Vienna, Asperger published the first definition of Asperger’s Syndrome in 1944. In four boys, he identified a pattern of behavior and abilities that he called “autistic psychopathy,” meaning autism (self) and psychopathy (personality). The pattern included “a lack of empathy, little ability to form friendships, one-sided conversation, intense absorption in a special interest, and clumsy movements.” Asperger called children with AS “little professors,” because of their ability to talk about their favourite subject in great detail.

He was convinced that many would use their special talents in adulthood. He followed one child, Fritz V., into adulthood. V. became a professor of astronomy and solved an error in Newton’s work he originally noticed as a child. Hans Asperger’s positive outlook contrasts strikingly with Leo Kanner’s description of autism. Both men essentially described the same condition. It may be that Hans Asperger expressed positive views on Asperger Syndrome due to the political climate of the time, in particular the Nazis’ intolerance for disabilities. Since Hans Asperger’s time, it has become clear that the condition does not necessarily entail high intelligence and/or academic success.

Ironically, as a child Hans Asperger appears to have exhibited features of the very condition named after him. He was described as a remote and lonely child, who had difficulty making friends. He was talented in language, in particular he was interested in the German poet Franz Grillparzer whose poetry he would frequently quote to his uninterested classmates.

Asperger died before his identification of this pattern of behaviour became widely recognized because his work was mostly in German and little-translated. The first person to use the term “Asperger’s Syndrome” in a paper was British researcher Lorna Wing. Her paper, Asperger’s syndrome: a clinical account, was published in 1981 and challenged the previously accepted model of autism presented by Leo Kanner in 1943.

Further reading
Uta Frith (ed.): Autism and Asperger Syndrome (Cambridge University Press, 1991; ISBN 052138608X) — in which Asperger’s 1944 paper is translated and annotated
Papers
Asperger, H. (1944), Die ‘Autistischen Psychopathen’ im Kindesalter, Archiv fur Psychiatrie und Nervenkrankheiten, 117, pp.76-136.
Asperger, H. (1968), Zur Differentialdiagnose des Kindlichen Autismus, Acta paedopsychiatrica, 35, pp.136-145.
Asperger, H. (1979), Problems of Infantile Autism, Communication, 13, pp.45-52.

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