Hans Asperger - Who Was He?
One of the cooler aspects of discovering a new syndrome or disease, aside from making medical history, is that you get to name the disease after yourself. In the case of Asperger’s Syndrome (AS), the name is derived from Hans Asperger, an Austrian pediatrician, Feb. 18, 1906 - Oct. 21, 1980. Hans Asperger was a prolific writer, penning over 300 publications, most of them to do with autism in children.
Asperger was born to a farming family in the rural town of Hausbrunn, which lies on the outskirts of Vienna, Austria. The eldest of two boys, as a youngster he had a talent for languages and liked to quote the poet Franz Grillparzer to his uninterested classmates.
Some say that Asperger exhibited many of the tendencies of the syndrome he so well described. Hans found it hard to make friends and was seen as somewhat introverted. He was known to refer to himself in the third person and would often quote his own words.
He studied medicine in Vienna, becoming a doctor of medicine in 1931. Asperger practiced at Vienna’s University Children’s Hospital. In 1935 Dr. Asperger married and went on to father 5 children.
Toward the end of World War II Asperger served as a medical officer in Croatia. His younger brother perished in The Battle of Stalingrad.
After the publication of Asperger’s landmark paper on autism symptoms in 1944, he was given a tenured position at the University of Vienna. Just after the war ended, he was made the director of a children’s clinic in that city.
Asperger was appointed chair of pediatrics at the university and served in that position for 2 decades. He later took a position in Innsbruck. In 1964 he agreed to head the SOS-Kinderdorf in Hinterbrühl, becoming professor emeritus in 1977.
Dr. Asperger first wrote up his definition of Asperger’s syndrome in 1944 but his work was little recognized during his lifetime. This is due to the fact that his work was in German and translations were rare. The first paper to mention Asperger’s Syndrome was published in 1981 by Lorna Wing, a British researcher.
Wing’s paper on the subject, Asperger's syndrome: a clinical account, served as a challenge to the accepted model of autism as presented by Leo Kanner in 1943.
Once Asperger’s findings began to be translated into English in 1989, the English-speaking world sat up and took note. At that point, his findings gained notice and Asperger’s syndrome received recognition as a diagnosis.
Asperger had identified a certain pattern of behaviors and special abilities in four boys which he called “autistic psychopathy.” This pattern of behavior included, "a lack of empathy, little ability to form friendships, one-sided conversations, intense absorption in a special interest, and clumsy movements."
Asperger spoke of children with AS as "little professors" because they could speak on a favourite topic in great detail.
Dr. Asperger believed that these children would make use of their special talents when they reached adulthood. One of the children, Fritz V., later became a professor of astronomy and managed to solve an error in Newton’s work that he had noticed in his childhood.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Asperger’s work is his positive description of Asperger’s syndrome which is striking in comparison to Leo Kanner’s depressing description of autism. Asperger’s syndrome is considered a higher-functioning form of autism.