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David H. Skuse

 

A couple of years ago, I was asked about autism by a journalist from the New York Times. The reporter had been travelling the world, discussing the subject with many people who had contributed to our understanding of this fascinating and complex disorder. Why, she asked, was it that this subject aroused such passions? Never before had she come across a group of scientists who criticized each other quite so much as those working in the field of autism. She was astonished, dismayed and perplexed in equal measures.

 

This controversy forms the backdrop to a recent review of the history of autism, written by Adam Feinstein (2010). His story begins in the birthplace of so many ideas in psychiatry, Vienna in the 1930s. Here, in 1938, Hans Asperger gave a lecture on autistic psychopathy some years before the landmark paper by Leo Kanner (1943), which is often credited with initiating the avalanche of research that followed. Kanner was also born in Austria, but his parents emigrated to Germany when he was still a child, and he left for the USA as a young doctor in the 1920s.

 

The origins of the term autism are therefore mired in controversy, with some claiming that Kanner plagiarized Asperger’s work. Certainly, he was better known in English-speaking countries for years before the latter’s papers were translated. The term ‘Asperger syndrome’ has since acquired a connotation that is far-removed from what Asperger himself described. It has become a sort of ‘autism for the middle classes’ and is about to be consigned to history. In the 5th revision of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the eponym will be abolished. Lorna Wing, who was responsible for introducing Asperger’s work to the English-speaking world ( Wing, 1981), will not be sad to hear this. …

 

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