What is Aspergers Syndrome?

Aspergers Syndrome has surely existed throughout human history even though it has been recognized as a distinct condition for only the past few decades. Today Aspergers is classified at the high-functioning end of the range of the atypical behavior and thinking patterns of the autism spectrum.

History

The term “autism” was coined[1] in 1912 by Swiss psychiatrist Paul Eugen Bleuler. At that time, theorists in the relatively young field of psychiatry believed autism to be one of four main characteristics of schizophrenia and not a distinct condition. In 1943 Dr. Leo Kanner, considered the first child psychiatrist in the world, published a paper in which he proposed that “infantile autism” was not merely a symptom or pre-condition of schizophrenia but was a distinct condition. However, this distinction between autism and schizophrenia was not universally accepted until the 1970s[2].

In 1944, Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger independently published his findings of a cluster of symptoms he observed in male children – boys he referred to as “little professors” for their obsessive and detailed interest in a narrow topic. Hans Asperger described the landmark features of the autistic-like condition he observed as a pattern that included:

  • Lack of empathy
  • Little ability to form friendships
  • One-sided conversations
  • Intense absorption in a special interest
  • Clumsy movements

Asperger’s paper received little notice until 1981, when Dr. Lorna Wing, a British researcher and mother of an autistic daughter, published Asperger’s Syndrome: a Clinical Account, a paper that reviewed research and case studies of children with the condition she named Asperger’s Syndrome. Wing described Asperger’s Syndrome as an “impairment of development of social interaction, communication and imagination.”[3] Prior to Wing’s paper, people who would now be diagnosed with Aspergers or high-functioning autism were usually not diagnosed at all; they were considered to be eccentric and perhaps unsociable but not in need of or especially amenable to treatment.

Over a decade passed before, in 1994, the DSM IV, the American authority on psychological disorders, included Aspergers Syndrome as a distinct cluster of traits. Most of the front-line American practitioners of the identification of childhood disorders – the educators, pediatricians and parents – were just becoming aware of Aspergers as the 20st century drew to a close, as this information trickled through professional training, into the non-psychiatric community and eventually into the mainstream press.

[1] The term “autism” is derived from the Greek words for self (autos) and state of being (ismos), so the word “autism” means that the patient is locked in a state of self-absorption.

[2] Dvir, Yael and Jean A Frazier, “Autism and Schizophrenia,” Psychiatric Times, Vol 28, No. 3, 15 March, 2011

[3] Wing, L. (1981) Psychol Med 11, Asperger’s Syndrome: a Clinical Account”

 

Copyright 2014 Sarah Meyer Noel. All rights reserved.

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