Asperger syndrome historical perspective

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Editor-In-Chief: C. Michael Gibson, M.S., M.D. [1]


The history of Asperger syndrome (AS), an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is brief; Asperger syndrome is a relatively new diagnosis in the field of autism,[1] named in honor of Hans Asperger (1906–80), an Austrian psychiatrist and pediatrician. An English psychiatrist, Lorna Wing, popularized the term "Asperger's syndrome" in a 1981 publication; the first book in English on Asperger syndrome was written by Uta Frith in 1991 and the condition was subsequently recognized in formal diagnostic manuals later in the 1990s.[1]

Asperger and Kanner

Asperger was the director of the University Children's Clinic in Vienna, spending most of his professional life in Vienna and publishing largely in German.[1] In 1944, Asperger described in the paper "'Autistic psychopathy' in childhood"[2] four children in his practice[3] who had difficulty in integrating themselves socially. Although their intelligence appeared normal, the children lacked nonverbal communication skills, failed to demonstrate empathy with their peers, and were physically clumsy. Their speaking was either disjointed or overly formal, and their all-absorbing interest in a single topic dominated their conversations. Asperger called the condition "autistic psychopathy" and described it as primarily marked by social isolation.[4] Asperger called his young patients "little professors",[2] and believed the individuals he described would be capable of exceptional achievement and original thought later in life.[3]

Two subtypes of autism were described between 1943 and 1944 by two Austrian researchers working independently—Asperger and Austrian-born child psychiatrist Leo Kanner (1894–1981). Kanner emigrated to the United States in 1924;[1] he described a similar syndrome in 1943, known as "classic autism" or "Kannerian autism", characterized by significant cognitive and communicative deficiencies, including delayed or absent language development.[5] Kanner's descriptions were influenced by the developmental approach of Arnold Gesell, while Asperger was influenced by accounts of schizophrenia and personality disorders.[6] Asperger's frame of reference was Eugen Bleuler's typology, which Gillberg described as "out of keeping with current diagnostic manuals", adding that Asperger's desriptions are "penetrating but not sufficiently systematic".[7] Asperger was unaware of Kanner's description published a year before his;[6] the two researchers were separated by an ocean and a raging war, and Asperger's descriptions were ignored in the United States.[3] During his lifetime, Asperger's work, in German, remained largely unknown outside the German-speaking world.[1]


According to Ishikawa and Ichihashi in the Japanese Journal of Clinical Medicine, the first author to use the term Asperger's syndrome in the English-language literature was the German physician, Gerhard Bosch.[8] Between 1951 and 1962, Bosch worked as a psychiatrist at Frankfurt University. In 1962, he published a monograph detailing five case histories of individuals with PDD[9] that was translated to English eight years later,[10] becoming one of the first to establish German research on autism, and attracting attention outside the German-speaking world.[11]

Lorna Wing is credited with widely popularizing the term "Asperger's syndrome" in the English-speaking medical community in her 1981 publication[12] of a series of case studies of children showing similar symptoms.[1] Wing also placed AS on the autism spectrum, although Asperger was uncomfortable characterizing his patient on the continuum of autistic spectrum disorders.[3] She chose "Asperger's syndrome" as a neutral term to avoid the misunderstanding equated by the term autistic psychopathy with sociopathic behavior.[13] Wing's publication effectively introduced the diagnostic concept into American psychiatry and renamed the condition as Asperger's;[14] however, her accounts blurred some of the distinctions between Asperger's and Kanner's descriptions because she included some mildly retarded children and some children who presented with language delays early in life.[6]

Early studies

The first systematic studies appeared in the late 1980s in publications by Tantam (1988) in the UK, Gillberg and Gilbert in Sweden (1989), and Szatmari, Bartolucci and Bremmer (1989) in North America.[1] The diagnostic criteria for AS were outlined by Gillberg and Gillberg in 1989; Szatmari also proposed criteria in 1989.[13] Asperger's work became more widely available in English when Uta Frith, an early researcher of Kannerian autism, translated his original paper in 1991.[1] AS became a distinct diagnosis in 1992, when it was included in the 10th published edition of the World Health Organization’s diagnostic manual, International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10); in 1994, it was added to the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) as Asperger's Disorder.[4]


Less than two decades after the widespread introduction of AS to English-speaking audiences, there are hundreds of books, articles and websites describing it; prevalence estimates have increased dramatically for ASD, with AS recognized as an important subgroup.[1] However, questions remain concerning many aspects of AS; whether it should be a separate condition from high-functioning autism is a fundamental issue requiring further study.[3] The diagnostic validity of Asperger syndrome is tentative, there is little consensus among clinical researchers about the usage of the term "Asperger's syndrome", and there are questions about the empirical validation of the DSM-IV and ICD-10 criteria.[6] It is likely that the definition of the condition will change as new studies emerge[6] and it will eventually be understood as a multifactorial heterogeneous neurodevelopmental disorder involving a catalyst that results in prenatal or perinatal changes in brain structures.[3]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 Baron-Cohen S, Klin A (2006). "What's so special about Asperger Syndrome?" (PDF). Brain and cognition. 61 (1): 1–4. doi:10.1016/j.bandc.2006.02.002. PMID 16563588.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Asperger H; tr. and annot. Frith U (1991). "'Autistic psychopathy' in childhood". In Frith U. Autism and Asperger syndrome. Cambridge University Press. pp. 37–92. ISBN 052138608X. Unknown parameter |origdate= ignored (|orig-year= suggested) (help)
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 Baskin JH, Sperber M, Price BH (2006). "Asperger syndrome revisited". Rev Neurol Dis. 3 (1): 1–7. PMID 16596080.
  4. 4.0 4.1 National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) (July 31 2007). Asperger Syndrome Fact Sheet. Retrieved 24 August 2007.
  5. Kanner L (1943). "Autistic disturbances of affective contact". Nerv Child. 2: 217–50. Reprint (1968) Acta Paedopsychiatr 35 (4): 100–36. PMID 4880460.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 Klin A (2006). "Autism and Asperger syndrome: an overview". Rev Bras Psiquiatr. 28 (suppl 1): S3–S11. doi:10.1590/S1516-44462006000500002. PMID 16791390.
  7. Ehlers S, Gillberg C (1993). "The epidemiology of Asperger's syndrome. A total population study". J Child Psychol Psychiat. 34 (8): 1327–50. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7610.1993.tb02094.x. PMID 8294522. "Truncated version". Retrieved 2008-06-15.
  8. Ishikawa G, Ichihashi K (2007). "[Autistic psychopathy or pervasive developmental disorder: how has Asperger's syndrome changed in the past sixty years?]". Nippon Rinsho (in Japanese). 65 (3): 409–18. PMID 17354550.
  9. (German) Bosch G (1962). Der frühkindliche Autismus - eine klinische und phänomenologisch-anthropologische. Untersuchung am Leitfaden der Sprache. Berlin: Springer.
  10. Bosch G (1970). Infantile autism – a clinical and phenomenological anthropological investigation taking language as the guide. Berlin: Springer.
  11. Bölte S, Bosch G. "Bosch's Cases: a 40 years follow-up of patients with infantile autism and Asperger syndrome" (PDF). Journal of Psychiatry. Retrieved 2007-08-20.
  12. Wing L (1981). "Asperger's syndrome: a clinical account". Psychological medicine. 11 (1): 115–29. PMID 7208735. Retrieved 2007-08-15.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Mattila ML, Kielinen M, Jussila K; et al. (2007). "An epidemiological and diagnostic study of Asperger syndrome according to four sets of diagnostic criteria". Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. 46 (5): 636–46. doi:10.1097/chi.0b013e318033ff42. PMID 17450055.
  14. McPartland J, Klin A (2006). "Asperger's syndrome". Adolesc Med Clin. 17 (3): 771–88. doi:10.1016/j.admecli.2006.06.010. PMID 17030291. Unknown parameter |doi_brokendate= ignored (help)