By Mark Blaxill and Dan Olmsted
We’ve just arrived in London after several days in Vienna, doing research for our book on the natural history of autism. Our search took us to hospitals, pharmaceutical museums and the home and office of a certain Viennese psychiatrist named Sigmund Freud.
On Tuesday evening, we met Hans Asperger Jr. at our hotel and walked the grounds of Belvedere -- one of the grandest mansions in the world -- while we talked about his father’s discovery of a disorder that is now included on the autism spectrum. “My father always said: ‘I love the children,’” he told us. His father was a warm and loving father as well as a pediatrician who began seeing children with unusual behaviors starting in the 1930s; his interest was in how to give these children an opportunity for education and a happy adult life. Hans Jr. described his father reading classic Austrian literature to them as they sat in a circle around him, their restless behavior subsiding as they became engrossed.
Hans Jr. has four siblings, including two who are medical doctors -- one works with autistic children in Switzerland. He and two other siblings had careers in agriculture, perhaps influenced by their mother’s farm background. Unlike his sister who works with autistic children, Hans has chosen to stay close to home and build his career in Vienna.
Vienna is a city of grandeur and ghosts. Before World War I, the Habsburgs presided over a far-flung empire, but when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo -- a restive province -- the events were set in motion that led to World War I and the empire’s dissolution. World War II destroyed many of the city’s grandest buildings, but many were meticulously restored, and the city glows at night with lit monuments and buildings. As we roamed the city, it was hard, as we toured the famed Vienna Opera House, not to see the shadow of Hitler attending Wagner’s operas with his childhood friend from Linz; or to imagine Freud’s earliest cases walking up the same broad steps we did at 19 Berggasse. Mark’s daughter Sydney helped with research and getting around the city, as well as photographing key documents and places.
Interestingly, three of the five categories included within the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual’s listing of Pervasive Developmental Disorders — Asperger’s, Rett’s, and childhood disintegrative disorder -- were first diagnosed here, and we spent a lot of time trying to figure out what it was about Vienna that seemed to make it a corollary to Baltimore, where child psychiatrist Leo Kanner first saw autistic children born in the 1930s. Kanner published his paper in 1943; Asperger’s was published just a year later. This was the middle of a world war and they had never corresponded.
Was this a coincidence? That seems to be the consensus of the mainstream medical community, but we have always doubted it. Our search for clues to the connection continues, but suffice it to say we made progress in Vienna.
We feel we’re sharing this journey with Age of Autism’s readers, whose support and enthusiasm has helped sustain our efforts. We’ll keep you posted on our travels and insights although of course it won’t all come together until we finish The Book – but stay tuned as we continue our research.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism and Mark Blaxill is Editor at Large.