What would Hans Asperger think?
I have been thinking about the recent controversy regarding the DSM 5 and the choice to propose a move away from Asperger syndrome/disorder. I can’t help but think about what Asperger himself may think and feel it is important to visit his work and his intent when describing the condition he observed.
In 1944 Hans Asperger described people with what he termed “Autistic Psychopathy” – a personality disorder relating to ‘self’. When he was doing so I seriously doubt he would have thought that he would have ‘syndrome’ named after him. He clearly saw qualities that he deemed to be ‘autistic’, similar qualities that were described by Leo Kanner around the same time.
Asperger himself pays homage to Eugen Bleuler for the term autism, first used to described patients with Schizophrenia:
“The name ‘autism,’ coined by Bleuler, is undoubtedly one of the great linguistic and conceptual creations in medical nomenclature,” (Asperger,1944)
Asperger attempted to differentiate out people with ‘autism’ who were not psychotic. Kanner also borrowed the term autism from Bleuler and redefined the concept of ‘withdrawal’ away from Schizophrenia. Both Kanner and Asperger were describing similar populations borrowing Bleuer’s word autism and at the same time redefining that word so that it came to represent the population we know today.
It seems Asperger deliberately chose the word autism for what it represented then, as linguistically it may have been the best starting point for a description of the population he was wishing to highlight.
Beginning in 1981 Lorna Wing popularised the term Asperger syndrome. Having popularised the term it has been reported that she has since expressed her regret at doing so. Asperger didn’t live to see ‘his’ syndrome enter the DSM in 1994 – he died in 1980.
Hans Asperger’s work has undoubtedly had an impact on the way we view autism and has resulted in the expansion of the concept of autism. But he was and we are talking about autism.