Did Hans Asperger (1906–1980) have Asperger Syndrome?
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Who was the man who so eloquently described children with ‘autistic psychopathy’ and who developed treatment and interventions that are still relevant today for those diagnosed with Asperger syndrome?
According to biographical data (Colin, 2006) Hans Asperger was born 100 years ago into a farming family outside Vienna, Austria, the elder of two sons. It has been reported that already from an early age on he showed a specific talent for language and in his first years in school became known for his special interest of quoting Franz Grillparzer, the Austrian national poet, a characteristic he maintained throughout his life. It also appears that he did not make friends easily and that he was considered as being ‘remote’ but in later years he made friends particularly during the time he spent in the youth movement in the 1920s. Although he gave the impression of being clumsy, he liked walking in the Austrian woods and mountains. Asperger studied medicine in Vienna and started work at the remedial pedagogy station at the University Children’s Hospital in Vienna. After World War II he was appointed to the Chair of Paediatrics at the University of Vienna which he held for 20 years. He married in 1935 and had five children. He was working until the last and delivered a lecture a few days prior to his death. His list of publications exceeds 300, the two major topics being ‘autistic psychopathy’ and ‘death’.
Asperger was deeply concerned and cared for his patients; he emphasised the many positive traits while not neglecting the many negative features. His reasons for highlighting the intellectual giftedness, the possibilities of academic achievements and the good outcome of his cases might have been twofold: on the one hand he tried to protect these children from being sent to concentration camps during World War II, on the other hand, he also might have recognised many of the problems these children experienced as his own, but he had found ways of overcoming these difficulties and had become a successful paediatrician (Colin, 2006).
His preoccupation with ‘death’ might be connected with his experiences during World War II. Asperger served as medical officer during the war in Croatia, his younger brother died in Stalingrad (Colin, 2006). However, it is also very common that individuals with Asperger Syndrome are obsessed with death (Fitzgerald, 2004).
According to Frith (1990, p. 9), he was ‘quiet, reticent man, steeped in the humanist tradition, with an extensive knowledge of classics, history, art and literature’. His giftedness in the use of German language is reflected in all his writings. As already mentioned, he was particularly fond of the Austrian poet Grillparzer, whom he liked to quote frequently. Sometimes individuals with Asperger syndrome are drawn to autistic poets. Franz Grillparzer (1791–1872) was one of the most important 19th century Austrian dramatists, whose life was darkened by the suicide of his mother and younger brother. His father was a reserved man with cold and brusque behaviour, whereas his mother was a very kind woman who had a great interest in music, which he inherited from her. Grillparzer suffered from depression, had very strange and unsuccessful relations with females, was a hypochondriac and unable to maintain close relationships (Vocke, 2006). These are common features in persons with Asperger syndrome.
Maria Asperger-Felder, one of Asperger’s daughters portrayed her father during an interview with Uta Frith (1989) as distant, remote and quiet; isolated from his family but on the other hand interested in company. She described his interest in the German language and his constant preoccupation with quotations as ‘strange and intense’. She also mentioned that he was clumsy (Colin, 2006).
Asperger also liked to quote himself and often referred to himself from a third person perspective (Colin, 2006). This is consistent with the suggestion that individuals with autism sometimes communicate from a third-person point of view, instead of a first- vis-à-vis second person perspective (Peeters et al., 2003).
Christopher Gillberg (1990) suggested that Hans Asperger must have had a very deep understanding of the personality type he described and one can assume that in the widest sense Asperger himself was on the autism spectrum as cited by Colin (2006).
We fully agree.
- Colin (2006). Hans Asperger – selbst ein “Asperger”? Aspies e.V. monthly newsletter. Retrieved July 4, 2006, from http://www.aspies.de/asperger/aspiewelt/hans-asperger.html
- Fitzgerald, M. (2004). Autism and creativity. Is there a link between autism in men and exceptional ability? New York: Brunner-Routledge.Google Scholar
- Frith, U. (1990). Asperger and his syndrome. In U. Frith (Ed.), Autism and Asperger Syndrome (pp. 1–36). Cambridge: University Press.Google Scholar
- Gillberg, C. (1990). Asperger—en “unåbar” person. Läkartidningen. (Journal of the Swedish Medical Association) Stockholm, September 19, 1990, 87(39): 2971–297.Google Scholar
- Vocke, E. (2006). Franz Grillparzer. Retrieved August 15, 2006, from http://www.lehrer.uni-karlsruhe.de/~za874/homepage/Grillparzer.htm