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Asperger performing a psychological test on a child at the University Pediatric Clinic, Vienna during the Third Reich c. 1940.
|Born||February 18, 1906
|Died||October 21, 1980
|Education||University of Vienna|
|Known for||Writing on “autistic psychopathy”
Eponym of Asperger syndrome
|Institutions||University Children’s Hospital, Vienna|
Hans Asperger (February 18, 1906 – October 21, 1980) was an Austrian pediatrician, medical theorist, and medical professor. He is best known for his early studies on mental disorders, especially in children. His work was largely unnoticed during his lifetime except for a few accolades in Vienna, and his studies on psychological disorders only acquired world renown posthumously. There was a resurgence of interest in his work beginning in the 1980s, and due to his earlier work which was regarded by many to be under the fold of autism spectrum disorders, was named after him. Both Asperger’s original paediatric diagnosis of autistic psychopathy (AP), and the eponymous diagnosis of Asperger syndrome (AS) that was named for him after his death, remain controversial in competing diagnostic criteria.
Hans Asperger was born and raised on a farm outside Vienna, Austria. The elder of two sons, Hans had difficulty finding friends and was considered a lonely, remote child. He was talented in language; in particular, he was interested in the Austrian poet Franz Grillparzer, whose poetry he would frequently quote to his uninterested classmates. He also liked to quote himself and often referred to himself from a third-person perspective.
Asperger studied medicine at the University of Vienna under Franz Hamburger and practiced at the University Children’s Hospital in Vienna. He graduated doctor of medicine in 1931 and became director of the special education section at the university children’s clinic in Vienna in 1932. He married in 1935 and had five children.
During World War II, he was a medical officer, serving in the Axis occupation of Croatia; his younger brother died at Stalingrad. Near the end of the war, Asperger opened a school for children with Sister Viktorine Zak. The school was bombed and destroyed, Sister Viktorine was killed, and much of Asperger’s early work was lost.
Asperger was discovered to have been associated with the Nazi Party. Herwig Czech, a scholar, discovered letters in Asperger’s handwriting that used “Heil Hitler” as their closing salutation, which wasn't mandatory. Czech also discovered that Asperger also applied for the Nazi Doctors Association and sent a girl with encephalitis to be killed at Spiegelgrund.
Georg Frankl was Asperger’s chief diagnostician until he moved from Austria to America and was hired by Leo Kanner in 1937.
Asperger published a definition of autistic psychopathy in 1944 that was nearly identical with the definition published earlier by an earlier Russian neurologist named Grunya Sukhareva (Груня Ефимовна Сухарева) in 1926. Asperger identified in four boys a pattern of behavior and abilities that included “a lack of empathy, little ability to form friendships, one-sided conversations, intense absorption in a special interest, and clumsy movements”. Asperger noticed that some of the children he identified as being autistic used their special talents in adulthood and had successful careers. One of them became a professor of astronomy and solved an error in Newton’s work he had originally noticed as a student. Another one of Asperger’s patients was the Austrian writer and Nobel Prize in Literature laureate, Elfriede Jelinek. However, Asperger claimed that autistic traits were more often a disorder than a benefit for the majority of people who had them, and that more severely impaired subjects had little "social worth".
In 1944, after the publication of his landmark paper describing autistic symptoms, Hans Asperger found a permanent tenured post at the University of Vienna. Shortly after the war ended, he became director of a children’s clinic in the city. It was there that he was appointed chair of pediatrics at the University of Vienna, a post he held for twenty years. He later held a post at Innsbruck. Beginning in 1964, he headed the SOS-Kinderdorf in Hinterbrühl. He became professor emeritus in 1977, and died three years later. AS was named after Hans Asperger and officially recognized in the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1994; it was removed from DSM-5 in 2013.
Asperger died before his identification of this pattern of behaviour became widely recognised. This was in part due to his work being exclusively in German and as such it was little-translated; medical academics, then as now, also disregarded Asperger’s work based on its merits or lack thereof. English researcher Lorna Wing proposed the condition Asperger’s syndrome in a 1981 paper, Asperger’s syndrome: a clinical account, that challenged the previously accepted model of autism presented by Leo Kanner in 1943. It was not until 1991 that an authoritative translation of Asperger’s work was made by Uta Frith; before this AS had still been “virtually unknown”. Frith said that fundamental questions regarding the diagnosis had not been answered, and the necessary scientific data to address this did not exist. Unlike Kanner, who overshadowed Asperger, the latter’s findings were ignored and disregarded in the English-speaking world in his lifetime.
In the early 1990s Asperger’s work gained some notice due to Wing’s research on the subject and Frith’s recent translation, leading to the inclusion of the eponymous condition in the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems 10th revision (ICD-10) in 1993, and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 4th revision (DSM-IV) in 1994, some half a century after Asperger’s original research.
Despite this brief resurgence of interest in his work in the 1990s, AS remains a controversial and contentious diagnosis due to its unclear relationship to the autism spectrum. The World Health Organization’s ICD-10 Version 2015 describes AS as “a disorder of uncertain nosological validity”, and there was a majority consensus to phase the diagnosis out of the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnosis manual.
In his 1944 paper, as Uta Frith translated from the German in 1991, Asperger wrote, "We are convinced, then, that autistic people have their place in the organism of the social community. They fulfill their role well, perhaps better than anyone else could, and we are talking of people who as children had the greatest difficulties and caused untold worries to their care-givers." Based on Frith's translation, however, Asperger continued: "Unfortunately, in the majority of cases the positive aspects of autism do not outweigh the negative ones." Psychologist Eric Schopler wrote in 1998:
Asperger’s own publications did not inspire research, replication, or scientific interest prior to 1980. Instead, he laid the fertile groundwork for the diagnostic confusion that has grown since 1980.
Since 2009, Asperger’s birthday, February 18, has been declared International Asperger’s Day by various governments.
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- Asperger, Hans (1968). "Auf die Differentialdiagnose der frühen infantilen Autismus [On the differential diagnosis of early infantile autism]". Acta Paedopsychiatrica (in German). 35 (4): 136–145. PMID 4880461.
- Asperger, Hans (1974). "Frühe infantile Autismus [Early infantile autism]". Medizinische Klinik (in German). 69 (49): 2024–2027. PMID 4444665.
- Asperger, Hans (1977). "Die gelebte Leben. 50 Jahre Pädiatrie [The lived life. 50 years of pediatrics]". Pädiatrie & Pädologie (in German). 12 (3): 214–223. PMID 331197.
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