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Did Kanner Actually Describe the First Account of Autism? The Mystery of 1938

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Kanner opens his pioneering 1943 paper on autism by making a mysterious mention of the year 1938. Recent letters to the editor of this journal have disagreed over a particular interpretation—does 1938 refer to an early paper by Asperger, effectively meaning Kanner plagiarised Asperger? I argue 1938 refers to a paper by Louise Despert. This was not plagiarism but a case of building on Despert’s ideas. Additionally, I suggest his motives for not mentioning her by name were not dishonourable.

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  1. Fitzgerald, in personal communication with Feinstein, is quoted as saying Kanner “plagiarized” (Feinstein 2010, p. 11) Asperger.

  2. For example, Kanner considers as fundamental desire for unchanging environments, behaviour Asperger (1991) only mentions through descriptions of other symptoms. Kanner say autistic children have normal intelligence whereas Asperger says autism can occur at any intelligence level. Kanner believes interaction with the physical world is normal whereas Asperger describes poor co-ordination.

  3. This articles describes a 32 year old female adult, first seen by psychiatrists in 1920 at three years of age. Based upon case records made in 1920 and 1921, Darr and Worden (1951) and Kanner (in Darr and Worden 1951) all consider her autistic. This makes her one of the earliest clinical description of a child we can retrospectively consider autistic.

  4. Many psychology journals during this period were not stringent over referencing. Kanner's article was not particularly exceptional in this regard.


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I would like to thank Rachel Cooper and Alan Collins who read and offered advice on earlier versions of this article. My research is funded by a scholarship from the Economic and Social Research Council.

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Correspondence to Sam Fellowes.

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Fellowes, S. Did Kanner Actually Describe the First Account of Autism? The Mystery of 1938. J Autism Dev Disord 45, 2274–2276 (2015).

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