Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Autism: Leo Kanner

“In 1943 Leo Kanner published a paper that would, with Asperger’s work a year later, form the basis of present day understanding of Autistic Spectrum Disorder. He considered five features to be diagnostic. These were: a profound lack of affective contact with other people; an anxiously obsessive desire for the preservation of sameness in the child's routines and environment; a fascination for objects, which are handled with skill in fine motor movements; mutism or a kind of language that does not seem intended for inter-personal communication; good cognitive potential shown in feats of memory or skills on performance tests, especially the Séguin form board . He also emphasized onset from birth or before 30 months.” From the book, The Cockroach Catcher.

A case extract from his original paper:

Donald T. was first seen in October, 1938, at the age of 5 years, 1 month. "Eating,......has always been a problem with him. He has never shown a normal appetite. Seeing children eating candy and ice cream has never been a temptation to him."

At the age of 1 year "he could hum and sing many tunes accurately." Before he was 2 years old, he had "an unusual memory for faces and names, knew the names of a great number of houses" in his home town. "He was encouraged by the family in learning and reciting short poems, and even learned the Twenty-third Psalm and twenty-five questions and answers of the Presbyterian Catechism." The parents observed that "he was not learning to ask questions or to answer questions unless they pertained to rhymes or things of this nature, and often then he would ask no question except in single words." His enunciation was clear.

He knew the pictures of the presidents "and knew most of the pictures of his ancestors and kinfolks on both sides of the house." He quickly learned the whole alphabet" backward as well as forward" and to count to 100.

It was observed at an early time that he was happiest when left alone, almost never cried to go with his mother, did not seem to notice his father's home-comings, and was indifferent to visiting relatives.

He does not observe the fact that anyone comes or goes, and never seems glad to see father or mother or any playmate. He seems almost to draw into his shell and live within himself.

He seldom comes to anyone when called but has to be picked up and carried or led wherever he ought to go. In his second year, he "developed a mania for spinning blocks and pans and other round objects." At the same time, he had a dislike for self-propelling vehicles, such as Taylor-tots, tricycles, and swings.

He was always constantly happy and busy entertaining himself, but resented being urged to play with certain things. When interfered with, he had temper tantrums, during which he was destructive. He appears to be always thinking and thinking, and to get his attention almost requires one to break down a mental barrier between his inner consciousness and the outside world.

The father, whom Donald resembles physically, is a successful, meticulous, hard-working lawyer who has had two "breakdowns" under strain of work. He always took every ailment seriously, taking to his bed and following doctors' orders punctiliously even for the slightest cold. "When he walks down the street, he is so absorbed in thinking that he sees nothing and nobody and cannot remember anything about the walk." The mother, a college graduate, is a calm, capable woman, to whom her husband feels vastly superior.

When he desired to get down after his nap, he said, "Boo [his word for his mother], say' Don, do you want to get down?' "His mother would comply, and Don would say: "Now say 'All right.' "The mother did, and Don got down.

At mealtime, repeating something that had obviously been said to him often, he said to his mother, "Say 'Eat it or I won't give you tomatoes, but if you don't eat it I will give you tomatoes,' " or "Say 'If you drink to there, I'll laugh and I'll smile.' "And his mother had to conform or else he squealed, cried, and strained every muscle in his neck in tension. This happened all day long about one thing or another

When he wanted his mother to pull his shoe off, he said: "Pull off your shoe." When he wanted a bath, he said: "Do you want a bath?"

The word "yes" for a long time meant that he wanted his father to put him up on his shoulder. This had a definite origin. His father, trying to teach him to say "yes" and "no," once asked him, "Do you want me to put you on my shoulder?" *Don expressed his agreement by repeating the question literally, echolalia-like. His father said, "If you want me to, say 'Yes'; if you don't want me to, say 'No.' "Don said "yes" when asked. But thereafter "yes" came to mean that he desired to be put up on his father's shoulder. He paid no attention to persons around him.

He gave no heed to the presence of other children but went about his favorite pastimes, walking off from the children if they were so bold as to join him. If a child took a toy from him, he passively permitted it.

He was inexhaustible in bringing up variations: "How many days in a week, years in a century, hours in a day, hours in half a day, weeks in a century, centuries in half a millennium," etc., etc.; "How many pints in a gallon, how many gallons to fill four gallons?" Sometimes he asked, "How many hours in a minute, how many days in an hour?" etc.

When asked to subtract 4 from 10, he answered: "I'll draw a hexagon."

The paper is quite a gem and students of child psychiatry are well advised to read it. Leo Kanner continually questioned the given wisdom of the day; couple that with his keen observation power and curiosity and a natural irreverence to authority, it was only natural that he should have created history by being the first to describe Autism.

Leo Kanner “thought what nobody has yet thought, about that which everybody sees.”
Erwin Schrödinger Nobel Prize in Physics 1933

Autism posts:
Autism: Somalis in Minnesota and Sunshine
Autism: Gene Disruption?
Autism, the Brain and Tiger Woods
Autism and Money


Barbara Olson, MS, RN, FISMP said...

I'm enjoying following your blog and hope it's okay to blog roll you over at Florence dot com.

Cockroach Catcher said...

Sure Barbara. You are most welcome.