Recently Jim Harris wrote a critical review of two published books dealing with the history of autism (JAACAP 55:729-733, 2016). One of the books reviewed was Neurotribes written by Steve Silberman and the other was In a Different Key written by John Donvan and Caren Zucker. The book review was published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (JAACAP) and the issue was introduced by an editorial written by Andres Martin entitled: Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger: Setting the Historical Record Straight (JAACAP 55:728). As a side note, Dr. Mark Gilbert, who is Kanner’s grandson, for purpose of the book review, gave permission to JAACAP to reproduce a portrait of Kanner that is privately owned by the family.
It is of interest to note that Jim Harris is the Director of Developmental Neuropsychiatry for the Johns Hopkins Hospital and the Kennedy Krieger Institute. He is the author of my favorite textbook in neurosciences, a 2 volume treatise on Developmental Neuropsychiatry that won the Medical Book of the Year Award for 1996. Dr. Harris has won numerous awards for his continuous work on intellectual disabilities but, most importantly, Dr. Harris knew Kanner personally and what his patients and their families thought about him.
I must say that I sensed a certain amount of what could be called justified anger on part of Drs. Martin and Harris from their written pieces. The same was directed at Steve Silberman the writer who chastised Kanner and elevated Asperger to Sainthood as the proclaimed founder of Neurodiversity. The main conclusion from Dr. Harris’ review being that Mr. Silberman fudged the interpretation of historical facts/accounts in order to benefit his own biased account of Neurodiversity and how this biased perspective stood in counter position to the more balanced historical account offered by John Donvan and Caren Zucker.
The book review starts by elucidating the role of Leo Kanner in the history of Child Psychiatry. It emphasizes his advocacy for social justice and ethical treatment for those with intellectual disabilities, his belief that treatment should be individualized to the needs of each individual, and his stance against euthanasia- the latter in clear contrast to Asperger who actively participated in the euthanasia movement. In Neurotribes, Silberman attacks Kanner’s character rather than impartially discussing the available historical facts. Through Silberman’s eyes Kanner is seen as acting in “typically [emphasis mine] grandiose fashion”, and that his “capitulation to his powerful peers was as swift as it was brutal to parents.” According to Harris, Silberman writes that Kanner was a scientist who, by blaming the parents, “made the syndrome a source of shame and stigma worldwide while sending autism research off in the wrong direction for decades.” He then spends a distressingly long time suggesting that Kanner plagiarized Asperger through Dr. Frankl (a mutual acquaintance that worked in tandem for both of them). According to Dr. Harris Silberman is wrong in all of these accounts.
Kanner always believed that autism was born of an innate proclivity, a view embraced by present day science and multiple neuropathological and genetic studies. This view is too difficult to swallow for Silberman who upon upholding Neurodiversity’s credo tries to portray autism as a result of normal variability within the human phenotype. To uphold Kanner’s view Mr. Silberman would have to agree that autism is a medical condition with grave implications for many individuals. Moreover the fact that Frankl may have helped Kanner formulate his diagnosis of autism in a way that mimicked that of Asperger lacks credence. Frankl was primarily preoccupied with non-idopathic types of autism not the classical autism formulated by Kanner. Furthermore, even Asperger recognized that Kanner’s autism was different from what he had formulated. For those interested in Frankl’s involvement in the Kanner-Asperger diagnostic saga the same is amply discussed in https://corticalchauvinism.com/2016/03/07/neurotribes-how-the-cookie-crumbles/ .
Dr. Harris offers more severe criticisms of Mr Silberman’s portrayal of Asperger with data primarily derived from John Donvan and Caren Zucker in interviews with the Austrian historian of war atrocities Mr. Herwig Czech (see https://corticalchauvinism.com/2016/06/13/the-early-nazi-history-of-autism/). According to Dr. Harris, “Donvan and Zucker present a more balanced view of Kanner’s and Asperger’s contributions but, unlike Silberman, make clear Asperger’s compliance with the National Socialist Party (Nazis) in Vienna. They challenge Silberman’s portrayal of Asperger as resisting the Nazi agenda. There is evidence (Herwig Czech, personal communication, February 28, 2016) that Asperger took an oath to Hitler and accepted his racist policies. Silberman does acknowledge that to keep his hospital position, Asperger would have been required to sign a loyalty oath to Hitler….Each time Asperger applied for a post or a promotion, he was cleared as someone who, although not a party member, abided by Nazi principles in the performance of his job. In one instance, a party official wrote that he “conforms to the principles of the policy of racial hygiene” (Herwig Czech, personal communication, February 28, 2016). Czech presented this information about Asperger’s complicity with the Nazis at an Asperger retrospective in Vienna in 2010 and published his findings in 2011 and 2014.”
For those interested in learning more about child psychiatry and Leo Kanner, Jim Harris provided a podcast that is freely available at http://www.jaacap.org/pb/assets/raw/Health%20Advance/journals/jaac/jaac_pc_55_8.mp3. Otherwise Dr. Harris book review is full of references that can be checked, including those of Herwig Czech.