Category Archives: First Descriptions

Kanner vs Despert – Round 2

A new article by Dan Olmsted and Mark Blaxill has just been published which partly responds to my own article. They intend their article as an objection to my claims but I believe it broadly supports what I say.

I argued Leo Kanner conceptualised an initial idea of autism after reading Louise Despert’s 1938 article. Her article effectively is a bridge between 1930s notions of childhood schizophrenia and Kanner’s 1943 notion of autism. 1930s childhood schizophrenia made a set of claims, Despert’s 1938 paper partly modified them in ways which was quite close to Kanner’s 1943 autism and then Kanner made further modification to conceptualise his notion of autism. As I said in my article, Kanner built on Despert. Olmsted and Blaxill’s article has very helpfully found in the archives some letters written between Despert and Kanner. Written in 1943, just after Kanner’s publication on autism, Despert praises Kanner’s paper but objects to his claim to have discovered something new. She appears to think she has already described something like autism. Kanner, in a letter sent a few days later, praises Despert’s work but argues his own paper contains an important additional claim – the children showed the symptoms from birth, whereas Despert’s children only showed some symptoms from birth. As I wrote, Kanner’s “innovation was realising that actually no onset took place, all symptoms were presentfrom birth. Generally, it was believed all symptoms of all childhood schizophrenia occurred after a period of normality, but then Despert claimed some childhood schizophrenics had some symptoms present from birth, and finally Kanner claimed some childhood schizophrenics had all symptoms present from birth, renaming those childhood schizophrenics as autistic.” (2275-2276).

At this point we need ask, what does it mean to describe something first? Kanner’s autism has also undergone major modifications by later psychiatrists, so in a sense you could say that Lorna Wing really discovered autism, since her notion seems closest to our own (but then Wing’s notion has undergone minor modification). This is why I concluded by saying “Who wrote the original account of autism? This is not a helpful question. Kanner and other child psychiatrists worked within scientific communities, engaging in a mutual process of borrowing and expanding ideas” (2276). I think the archival material Olmsted and Blaxill have produced nicely show this borrowing and expanding process, a process that does not easily fit notions of “who first described something”.