Hans Asperger II (1944)
Bill Long 12/7/07
Asperger's Case Studies
Asperger provides four case studies in his famous article. These sympathetic and detailed studies account for nearly 30 pages in the article, but each successive study takes fewer pages than the previous (11/9/6/3). It is at least plausible to conjecture that a longer treatment means that Asperger himself is more "drawn" to some rather than others of his clients. Let's meet Fritz V., Harro L., Ernst K., and Hellmuth L.
Fritz was born in 1933, the first child of his parents. He learned the practical routines of daily life late and with great difficulty. In contrast, he learned to talk very early (10 months) and quickly learned to express himself "like an adult." From the earliest days "he did just want he wanted to, or the opposite of what he was told." He had no love for anybody but occasionally "had fits of affection." Fritz did not know the meaning of respect and was utterly indifferent to the authority of others. He was descended of what you might call "genius" ancestors, at least on his mother's side. One of the greatest Austrian poets was an ancestor, and many on her side of the family were intellectuals in the "mad-genius" mold. Fritz took after his grandfather, who "resembled the caricature of a scholar, preoccupied with his own thoughts and out of touch with the real world." The boy's father was withdrawn and reticent, "extremely correct and pedantic and kept a more than usual distance."
As to Fritz's behavior, it was "strikingly odd. It was generally directed into the void, but was occasionally interrupted by a momentary malignant glimmer" (42). Posture, gaze, voice and speech "made it obvious at first glance that the boy's relations to the outside world were extremely limited." Most typical of his behavior were "stereoptypic movements: he would suddenly start to beat rhythmically on his thighs, bang loudly on the table..." (43). Asperger noted something in Fritz and others that often is ignored or dismissed by later researchers--the "malicious behaviour" of these children which so often appears to be "calculated," Ibid.
Key to understanding Fritz was that he "followed his own internally generated impulses." He apparently never took any notice of his environment, but he had one distinctive trait that stood out to Asperger--an extraordinary calculating ability. At the beginning of his schooling someone asked him what was 2/3 of 120. He instantly gave the right answer: "80." But he was deficient in what we would call emotional responsiveness. Fritz, in contrast with a typical young child, didn't have "uninterrupted reciprocity" with others. His voice, manner of speaking and inability to understand people's expressions was noteworthy (46). Asperger ended his treatment of Fritz with the observation that the two traditional diagnoses of a person like him, schizophrenia or post-encephatic personality disorder, didn't apply. He seemingly had no brain injury; his personality was steadily developing, rather than disintegrating. Thus, the boy's autism seemed to be a sort of tertium quid: a third 'something.' We are intrigued.
Harro L. interested Asperger because he demonstrated the more "positive" aspects of autism: independence in thought, experience and speech (50). Like Fritz, Harro had a "lost gaze" that was often "far away" (51). He never looked at his interlocutor while talking; his gaze was "far away." He had an unusually mature and adult way of expressing himself, not using adult phrases but by drawing on his on "quite unchildlike experience." When given various tests in which he was supposed to distinguish objects such as lake/river; fly/butterfly; stove/oven, he often provided fantastically original explanations. It was, as Frith comments, a "seamless mixture of general knowledge and personal memory." He also had his own way of doing calculation. For example, when asked to add 27 and 12, he said the following:
"2 times 12 equals 24, 3 times 12 equals 36. I remember the 3 [he means 27 is 3 more than 2 times 12], and carry on." Or, to subtract 12 from 34, he reasoned as follows: "34 plus 2 equals 36, minus 12 equals 24, minus 2 equals 22, this way I worked it out more quickly than any other,"(55).
The latter example shows that he is calculating by using multiples or proportion--by increasing the 34 to 36, he can work the 12, 24, 36 easily. He just has to remember to subtract 2 when he is done. It brings up the point whether Aspies who calculate extremely well have some kind of deep sense of proportion, and ready access to the calculations regarding proportion, in themselves that enables them to calculate so readily.
Finally Harro had a particular difficulty in "mechanical learning." He found it impossible "to learn from adults in conventional ways" (56). The peculiarities of his behavior:
"can all be explained in terms of his contact disturbance, that is, his extremely limited relationship to his environment," Ibid.
Harro is in his "own world," but you can sense from Asperger's description that this might not be such a bad world to be in or, if that is too much, an interesting world not only to explore but to cultivate and protect.
Ernest acted as a troublemaker during most of the 7 1/2 years of his life (59). He was said to be unable to cope with the ordinary demands of everyday life. He was clumsy and impractical. He had a tendency to argue with everybody and reprimand them.
"He was 'very precise': certain things always had to be in the same place, and certain events always had to happen in the same manner, or he would make a big scene," (60).
Ernst was eccentric and a loner. As with the others, "the eye gaze was highly characteristic, far away and unfocused." Practical tasks stymied him. Interestingly:
"He could recite in minute detail all the things he was doing when getting up and getting dressed in the morning, but in fact he was always forgetting or confusing things. While he could recite the theory, on a practical level his inadequacy was only too obvious," (61).
Ernst tortured himself over obsessive pedantries. For example, he wanted a pullover for Christmas, but because the wish couldn't be granted, he was given a particularly nice shirt with some toys as well. He was inconsolable over this 'incorrectness.' It wrecked his Christmas. Ernst had to have things his way, and this extended to his learning style. If he wasn't engaged in learning in the way that he wanted to learn, he simply was unable to learn. He didn't have the arithmetic brilliance of Harro or the familial genius of Fritz; indeed, he wasn't an outstanding student. It was hard to tell whether he was "particularly able or mentally retarded" (64), but he demonstrated the "unmistakable characteristics of autistic psychopathy:"
"the disturbance of contact, with the typical expressive phenomena in terms of glance, voice, mimics, gesture and movement, the disciplinary difficulties, the malice [my italics], the pedantries and stereotypes..," (64).
Asperger also calls this malice a "primitive spitefulness" (64). I would be interested to learn what researchers make of this claim of Asperger..
Asperger was not nearly as interested in Hellmuth--or, differently said, he devoted little time to him in his description. Hellmuth was developmentally delayed and was very awkward physically: "grotesquely fat, despite a strict, medically supervised diet" (65). His glance was "lost and absent but occasionally lit up with malice" (66). His speech was occasionlly clever, even though his school knowledge was uneven. In a trait that I love, "he was an excellent speller and never made mistakes," (66)! But his mother was "quite right when she said that he was always 'in another world.' This, however, didn't prevent him from doing a lot of "malicious things" (66). His pedantries tyrannized the household, and he was difficult to cope with. Finally, his relationship to the outside world was extremely limited (67).
These case studies, along with information on other cases he doesn't provide, allowed Asperger to develop the clinical picture of what he called "autistic psychopathy." The final essay describes that picture.