Autism and Asperger Syndrome book Review

Autism and Asperger Syndrome edited by Uta Frith was published by the Cambridge University Press in 1991. It is a detailed description (243 pages) of the pioneering work of Dr. Hans Asperger and Dr Leo Kanner.  Although both were born in Austria and both did pioneering work in the same field, they never actually met. Kanner had emigrated to the United States, and of course once World War II started there was no more contact between the scientific communities of the two countries for many years.

In 1944 Hans Asperger published (in German) his research paper “Autistic Psychopathy in Childhood”, in which he described his study of children who have “severe and characteristic difficulties of social integration” (He never used the phrase “Asperger Syndrome” . He was far too modest a man to do that. It was only decades later that people coined the phrase). In his paper he insisted that, “exceptional human beings must be given exceptional educational treatment, treatment which takes account of their special difficulties.”  This was an extraordinary statement to make in 1944.  Remember that  Dr. Hans Asperger was trying to help special needs people at the same time that another famous  Austrian named Hitler was actively pursuing quite a different treatment for anyone not considered worthy enough to be in the Superior Race.

In 1943  Dr. Leo Kanner had also published  a paper in which he described children who had what he called “early infantile autism”. However, the cases he described were of individuals much more disconnected from the world than those described by Hans Asperger. Kanner wrote that, “there is, from the start, an extreme autistic aloneness that, wherever possible, disregards, ignores, shuts out anything which comes to the world from the outside.”

For decades, a debate has raged about whether or not Autism and Asperger Syndrome are the same condition, or two completely different phenomenon. However, most physicians now believe that there is an “Autistic Spectrum”. At one end  are the people completely shut off from the world  who  Kanner described. At the other end are the highly intelligent but socially inept people in Asperger’s study. Over the years, the scientific community has come to realize that there is also a whole spectrum of individuals in between these two extremes.

Uta Frith has done a magnificent job of gathering original works of Asperger and Kanner and putting them in perspective with commentary from a number of experts (including Asperger’s daughter who also became a physician). We recommend this book to all those who are struggling to understand the concepts of Asperger Syndrome and Autism, and to anyone who knows someone one the spectrum.

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