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At first, Silberman didn’t have much to work with. There was a good deal of existing scholarship on the famed Leo Kanner, the psychiatrist who founded the first academic child psychiatry department at Johns Hopkins University Hospital. But there was very little written about Hans Asperger, who practiced at the University Children's Hospital in Vienna. Not much of his writing had been translated and a good deal of his case records perished when, in 1944, Allied bombs destroyed the Children’s Hospital. But Silberman noticed a name in a footnote to a paper, written in German about Erwin Lazar, one of Asperger’s colleagues and founder of the University’s Children’s Clinic, Georg Frankl. Frankl was Asperger’s chief diagnostician.
“I thought, ‘Where do I know that name from?’” Silberman told me recently. He recalled that Kanner name-checked Frankl in his landmark 1943 paper, “Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact.” There he was, a few pages in, amid a description of a 5-year-old boy named Donald Triplett:
Donald, when examined at the Harriet Lane Home in October, 1938, was found to be in good physical condition. During the initial observation and in a two-week study by Drs. Eugenia S. Cameron and Georg Frankl at the Child Study Home in Maryland, the following picture was obtained...
Kanner’s assistant and Asperger’s diagnostician, though separated by time and continents, were one and the same. “I thought, ‘Oh my god, it can’t possibly be the same guy,’” said Silberman.
Frankl’s journey from Vienna to Baltimore, and from one autism pioneer to another, was if nothing else a testament to Leo Kanner’s heroism. Kanner and his wife, in response to the crisis unfolding in Europe, helped doctors, nurses, and researchers—who would have otherwise perished—find visas and jobs in the United States. They saved upwards of 200 lives—one of which was Frankl’s.
And so it was that by time of Donald’s examination, Frankl had become the psychiatrist-pediatrician at Kanner’s Child Study Home. He was, by all accounts, invaluable. Indeed, Kanner and Frankl ran public clinics together. They toured local schools, giving joint diagnoses. It was, professionally speaking, a close relationship.
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Silberman’s discovery, which he writes about in his forthcoming book, NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, is not trifling. Not only does it cast serious doubt on the notion that Kanner’s discovery was completely independent of Asperger. Of perhaps greater importance, it may help resuscitate the reputation of Asperger—a man whose prescient ideas were long ignored.
Kanner and Asperger had divergent views of autism. Asperger’s was expansive. He believed that autism was what Frankl called a “continuum,” or what is now called “the spectrum.” This was the idea that, in the words of the National Institutes of Mental Health, autistic people can be “mildly impaired by their symptoms, while others are severely disabled.” Crucially, Asperger believed that the condition was not rare. Once you knew what to look for, you’d recognize it in many people. Kanner, however, framed autism as a rare form of childhood psychosis and, eventually—under pressure from his Freudian psychoanalytic colleagues—adopted the view that it was caused by bad parenting and “refrigerator mothers.”