Prior to World War II a Austrian psychiatrist named Hans Asperger started down a research path that led to his diagnosing many young men with a then unnamed disorder. He referred to these young man as “little professors” because they often knew a whole hell of a lot about specific subjects, while also being narrowly focused, introverted, and averse to a lot of things like light, sound, and texture.
Then the war happened and people who were also Jewish were herded up and put into concentration camps, while others were lucky to make it out of Germany and German occupied territories alive. Many ended up in the United States, which is where Leo Kanner enters the picture. Leo Kanner was also a psychiatrist who happened to be Jewish who fled Austria and resettled in the United States. The thing about Leo Kanner, though, was that he, like many brilliant minds and academics, full of himself and refused to allow for the possibility he was ever wrong and determined that autism, the same condition Hans Asperger had been working with, was rare and extreme and nothing else.
Which was the story of Autism as a disorder until the early to mid 1990’s when Hans Asperger’s research was rediscovered and interpreted into English and began to inform how children (and then adults) were being screened.
What It Is
On of the big issues with Autism is in understanding what it is (as opposed to what people think it is). For a very long time, because of Leo Kanner, people’s impression of autism was akin to the performance put on by Dustin Hoffman in the movie Rain Man. In the movie Raymond Babbitt is an autistic adult who has been institutionalized. Raymond was capable of some amazing things and was completely incapable of living on his own. He needed to be institutionalized.
For a young parent receiving the diagnosis of autism for their child, autism is a life-ending, debilitating disorder. Why? Because the baby isn’t responsive, it doesn’t interact or make eye-contact, there is no visible signs of love or affection. Children with autism are emotionally delayed. The disorder is something that is hard to understand and something that’s been demonized in many ways by both individuals and organizations.