History is dotted with simultaneous independent discoveries. From the Möbius strip to the electric telegraph, great minds sometimes do think alike. And for decades now, the Asperger-Kanner mind meld has been the accepted wisdom of the discovery of autism.
Steve Silberman, a writer for Wired, had worked on a book about autism for about a year. It was a topic with which he was familiar; he’d written a widely read story in 2001 on the prevalence of the disorder, which is estimated to affect one in 68 children. The new project aimed, in part, to document the history of autism research, and Silberman had a hunch that the conventional wisdom surrounding the allegedly serendipitous discovery of autism by two clinicians working independently was, at best, incomplete.
It’s a famous story, frequently told, including in The Atlantic. As Silberman put it, fourteen years ago:
In one of the uncanny synchronicities of science, autism was first recognized on two continents nearly simultaneously. In 1943, a child psychiatrist named Leo Kanner published a monograph outlining a curious set of behaviors he noticed in 11 children at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. A year later, a pediatrician in Vienna named Hans Asperger, who had never seen Kanner’s work, published a paper describing four children who shared many of the same traits. Both Kanner and Asperger gave the condition the same name: autism—from the Greek word for self, autòs—because the children in their care seemed to withdraw into iron-walled universes of their own.
Amazing! But not entirely crazy, either.