Autism in Childhood - Nine

Autistic Psychopathy in Childhood, ex Die ‘Autistischen Psychopathen’ im Kindersalter. Asperger, H. (1944) Archiv für Psychiatrie und Nervenkrankheiten, 117, 76-136.Translated and annotated by Uta Frith. From “Autism and Asperger syndrome” Edited by Uta Frith. ISBN-10: 052138608X

©1991 Cambridge University Press.

Part Nine

The Social Value of the Autistic Psychopath

The aim of this paper was to report on a personality disorder already manifest in childhood which to my knowledge has not yet been described. [82] In the following section we try to go beyond this aim and consider what will become of autistic children. At the same time, we shall consider their potential value to society. This question is important enough to be discussed in spite of the limitations of this paper, which can deal only with autism in childhood.

One might expect from much that has been said so far that social integration of autistic people is extremely difficult if not impossible. After all, we have pointed out that the essential feature of the condition is a disturbance of adaptation to the social environment. This bleak expectation, however, is borne out only in a minority of cases and, in particular, almost exclusively in those people with considerable intellectual retardation in addition to autism.

The fate of the latter cases is often very sad. At best they may get into a low-level odd job, often only on a temporary basis. In the less favourable cases, they roam the streets as ‘originals’, grotesque and dilapidated, talking loudly to themselves or unconcernedly to passers-by as autistic individuals would. They are taunted by urchins and react to this with wild but ineffectual outbursts.

This is not so with intellectually intact autistic individuals, and in particular those of above-average intelligence, Of course, in adulthood too their relationships to others are as disturbed as they are in childhood when they produce the same characteristic conflicts. An old definition of psychopathy is that psychopaths are people who suffer from themselves, and from whom the environment suffers in turn.

The latter part of the saying certainly applies to autistic individuals but it is hard to know whether they suffer from themselves. They are strangely impenetrable and difficult to fathom, Their emotional life remains a closed book. Given their behaviour problems in childhood, it is to be expected that their closest relatives or spouses End them difficult to get on with.

However, it is a different matter where their work is concerned. In the vast majority of cases work performance can be excellent, and with this comes social integration. Able autistic individuals can rise to eminent positions and perform with such outstanding success that one may even conclude that only such people are capable of certain achievements.It is as if they had compensatory abilities to counter-balance their deficiencies. Their unswerving determination and penetrating intellectual powers, part of their spontaneous and original mental activity, their narrowness and single-mindedness, as manifested in their special interests, can be immensely valuable and can lead to outstanding achievements in their chosen areas.

We can see in the autistic person, far more clearly than with any normal child, a predestination for a particular profession from earliest youth. A particular line of work often grows naturally out of their special abilities.

Here is an example. For almost three decades we were able to observe an autistic individual from boyhood to manhood. Throughout his life he showed grossly autistic behaviour, It was as if he never took any notice of other people. He behaved so absent-mindedly that he often did not recognise his closest acquaintances, He was extremely clumsy and gauche, and there were all the difficulties we described earlier in learning to deal with the practical chores of daily life. He remained awkward and socially unconcerned in his demeanour.

For instance, one could see him as a young man sitting in the tram and picking his nose with great care and persistence! When he was at school there were constant serious difficulties; he learnt or did not learn as the whim took him. For languages he had no talent at all. In secondary school he never advanced beyond the elementary grade of Greek and was able to get by only on the basis of his other abilities.

Even as a toddler, one could see in him a most unusual and spontaneous mathematical talent. Through persistent questioning of adults he acquired all the necessary knowledge from which he then worked independently, The following scene is reported from his third (!) year of life. The mother had to draw for him, in the sand, a triangle [Dreieck or three-corner], a square [four-corner] and a pentangle [five-corner]. He then took a stick himself, drew a line and said ‘And this is a two-corner [Zwei-eck], isn’t it?’, then made a dot and said ‘And this one is a one-corner [Ein-eck]’. All his play and all his interest centred on mathematics.

Before he even started school he was able to work out cubic roots. It must be emphasised that the parents had never drilled the child in calculating skills, but that the boy quite spontaneously, sometimes against the wishes of his teachers, forced them to teach him these skills.

In secondary school he surprised his teachers by his specialised mathematical knowledge which had already advanced to the most abstract areas, Thanks to this extraordinary talent, and despite his impossible behaviour and failure in other subjects, he managed to advance without having to repeat classes, and was able to take the university entrance examinations.Not long after the start of his university studies, reading theoretical astronomy, he proved a mathematical error in Newton’s work. His tutor advised him to use this discovery as the basis for his doctoral dissertation. From the outset it was clear that he was destined for an academic career. In an exceptionally short time he became an assistant professor at the Department of Astronomy and achieved his Habilitation. [83]

This case history is by no means exceptional. To out own amazement, we have seen that autistic individuals, as long as they are intellectually intact, can almost always achieve professional success, usually in highly specialised academic professions, often in very high positions, with a preference for abstract content.

We found a large number of people whose mathematical ability determines their professions: mathematicians, technologists, industrial chemists and high-ranking civil servants. We also found some unusual specialisations. For instance, there is a heraldry expert who is said to be an authority in his field. There are also several musicians of considerable stature who were observed by us when children.

The superficially surprising fact that such difficult and abnormal children can achieve a tolerable, or even excellent, degree of social integration can he explained if one considers it a little further.

A good professional attitude involves single-mindedness as well as the decision to give up a large number of other interests. Many people find this a very unpleasant decision. Quite a number of young people choose the wrong job because, being equally talented in different areas, they cannot muster the dedication necessary to focus on a single career.

With the autistic individual, on the other hand, the matter is entirely different, With collected energy and obvious coincidence and, yes, with a blinkered attitude towards life’s rich rewards, they go their own way, the way to which their talents have directed them from childhood.

Thus, the truth of the old adage is proved again; good and bad in every character are just two sides of the same coin. It is simply not possible to separate them, to opt for the positive and get rid of the negative.

We are convinced, then, that autistic people have their place in the organism of the social community. They full their role well, perhaps better than anyone else could, and we are talking of people who as children had the greatest difficulties and caused untold worries to their care-givers. [84]

The example of autism shows particularly well how even abnormal personalities can be capable of development and adjustment.Possibilities of social integration which one would never have dreamt of may arise in the course of development. This knowledge determines our attitude towards complicated individuals of this and other types.

It also gives us the right and the duty to speak out for these children with the whole force of our personality. We believe that only the absolutely dedicated and loving educator can achieve success with difficult individuals.


Now, at the end of the paper, one ought to discuss the literature, but this would not be very fruitful at present, One should investigate in what way the type of child described here relates to existing typologies. While I do not believe in a perfect systematic typology, the concept of type can be useful in certain cases, and this I have tried to prove in the present investigation.

The literature on personality types certainly includes those who show similarities to the autistic personality. There is E, Kretschmer's schizothymous personality, E, R. Jaensch's disintegrated personality and, above all, the introverted personality described by C. G. Jung, In the description of the introvert, in particular, there is much that is reminiscent of the children described here. Introversion, if it is a restriction of the self and a narrowing of the relations to the environment, may well be autism in essence. [85]

However, none of the authors mentioned has anything to say about the behaviour of their particular personality types in childhood. Hence the basis for comparison is largely lacking, and the descriptions are situated on quite a different level from ours, The debate will undoubtedly become more fruitful when we know what becomes of our autistic children when they are adults, This awaits a later comprehensive study, in which we intend not only to research more fully the biological and genetic basis, but also to look at development beyond childhood. This, then, will offer the opportunity to compare autism in more detail with the characterisations of personality types identified by other authors. [86]

In the present study, our purpose was to report on one type of abnormal child, both because we have first-hand experience of such children, and also because we have a deep commitment to their education.

This type of child is of interest not only because of its peculiarities and difficulties, but also because of its relevance to central psychological, educational and sociological problems.

Asperger’s References

Bleuler, E. (1922). Das autistisch-undisziplinierte Denken in der Medizin und seine Ueberwindung. Berlin: Springer.Bleuler, E. (193o). Lehrbuch der Psychiatrie. 5th edn. Berlin. Springer.
Hamburger, F. (1939). Die Neurosen des Kindesalters. Vienna and Berlin: Urban Be Schwarzenberg.
Heinze, H. (1932). Freiwillig schweigende Kinder. Zeitschrift für Kinderforschung. 40, 235-56
Jaensch, E. R. (1919). Grundformen menschlichen Seins. Berlin: Elsner.
Jaenseh, E. R. (1936). Der Gegentypus. Leipzig: Barth.Jung, C. G. (1926). Psychologische Typen. Zurich and Leipzig: Rascher.
Klages, L. (1936a). Grundlegung der Wissenschuft vom Ausdruck. 5th edn. Leipzig: Barth.
Klages, L. (1936b). Die Grundlagen der Chararkterkund. Leipzig: Barth.
Kretselnner, E. (1 928). Körperbau und Charakter. Berlin: Springer.
Schneider, K. (19 54). Die psychopathischen Persönlicthkeiten. Leipzig and Vienna: Deuticke.
Schröder, P. (1931). Kinderliche Charaktere und ihre Abartigkeiten, mit erläuternden Beispielen von Heinze. Breslau: Hirth.
Schröder, P. (19;,8). Kinderpsychiatrie. Monatsschrift für Psychiatrie und Neurologie, 99, 269-93.


Asperger, H. (1944), Die ‘Autistischen Psychopathen’ im Kindersalter. Archiv für Psychiatrie und Nervenkrankheiten, 117, 76-136.Asperger, H. (1952). Heilpädagogik. Berlin: Springer.
Baron—Cohen, S. (1989). Are autistic children ‘behaviourists'? An examination of their mental-physical and appearance-reality distinctions. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 19, 579-600.
Bleuler, E. (1916). Lehrbuch der Psychiatrie. Trans. A. A. Brill (1951), Textbook of psychiatry. New York: Dover.
Bleuler, E. (1919). Das autistisch-undisziplinierte Denken in der Medizin und seine Ueberwindung. Berlin: Springer.
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Kanner, L. (1943). Autistic disturbances of affective contact. Nervous Child, 2, 217-50 Reprinted in L. Kanner (1973), Childhood psychosis: initial studies and new insights. Washington: Winston.
Kanner, L. & Eisenberg, L. (1955). Notes on the follow—up studies of autistic children. In P. H Hoch & J. Zubin (eds.). Psychopathology of childhood. New York: Grune & Stratton. Reprinted in L. Kanner (1973), Childhood psychosis; initial studies and new insights. Washington; Winston.
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Kleist, H. von (1810). Ueber das Marionetten-theater. Berliner Abendblätter.
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82 Kanner's classic paper on autism was published a year earlier but would not have come to Asperger’s notice during the war years.

83 Asperger notes in 1952, the young man in question has long since become a university professor. Interestingly, the following sentence, which here states that the case is by no means exceptional, is changed in the 1952 volume to say that this is a very exceptional case.

84 The historical background to this passionate defence or the social value at autism was the very real threat of Nazi terror which extended to killing mentally handicapped and socially deviant people.

85 The remark that introversion may in essence he the same as autism is odd but also fascinating. In view of the fact that Asperger considered himself, and was considered by others, to he a typical introvert. Aspects of autism are not alien re normal experience and comparison to introversion may be relevant. However, it should not be overlooked that there is a world or difference between a well-adjusted introverted personality (who does not have to try hard to adapt) and an essentially no more than precariously adjusted autistic personality (who is constantly struggling).

86 Sadly, Asperger never carried out this promised study. His later work was almost solely concerned with consolidating his views and propagating the approach of remedial pedagogics (Heilpädagogik).

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