Category Archives: Kanner

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”.

Reviewing Kanner’s In Defense of Mothers

Kanner’s In Defense of Mothers arrived last week, having been ordered from America. It was published in 1941, two years before he developed his notion of autism. This books is very different in focus to most his writings, unusually being primarily about children who did not see psychiatrists.

The message is primarily ‘let children be children’, and to a lesser degree ‘let mothers be mothers’. He seemingly has a notion of natural mothering and believes this is distorted through bad advice given by various sources of supposed experts on mothering. He tells mothers not to insist on rigid diets, not to overburden the children with work, not to interfere dramatically in the child’s social life (i.e not decide who their friends can be), trying to counter various cultural sources who insist the mother must perfectly raise children lest the child ends up neurotic and delinquent. He thinks society should just let mothers be mothers, which would mean mothers would let children be children, a good route to healthy children in Kanner’s view.

There was very little about psychoanalysis in the book. The specific claim that poor mothering causes mental illness (such as childhood schizophrenia) was not really discussed (there were some ambiguous passages related to this but much more moderate than what came later). Whilst such claims really took off around 1950, it seems they were of little significance in the early 1940s.

The guiding principle throughout the book was ‘put the child in context’. If the child does something bizarre then there probably is good reason for this, talk to the child, try to understand what is happening with their life, but do not take this as a sign of some ominous symptom that must be immediately countered. This looks like Kanner taking a Meyerian approach, emphasising the individual as a whole who must be understood contextually, rather than more common approaches of just interpreting everything under one pet theory, something some child psychaitrists did and Kanner hated.

It was interesting to see Kanner would often describe the family in political terms, outlining a democracy as an ideal family where the child was an active member who was listened to. This contrasted with totalitarian families where the exact path the child must take was laid out in advance by the parents. Written in 1941, using such political terminology was understandable.

Overall, I’d put In Defense of Mothers as Kanner’s least valuable book to read, measured by all those published since he became a child psychiatrist. It does not particularly illuminate Kanner’s views, at least not more so than his 1935 text book, which goes into much more detail. It does give some nice social history though, giving a good feel for early 1940s American approaches to childhood.