The Canon. Childhood Psychosis: Initial Studies and New Insights. By Leo Kanner

August 13, 2009

On my first day at the university library, I found this collection of the papers of Leo Kanner. I have never let it go. Kanner, Austrian by birth, was appointed in 1930 as the first head of an academic child psychiatry department in the English-speaking world, at Johns Hopkins University, six years after arriving in the US from Berlin. The book is a rare find, and now, incomprehensibly, it is out of print, yet it opens with the 1943 paper that changed one in a hundred lives, "Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact", in which he identifies and names the core unifying features he observed in 11 children - autism. We now know there are possibly one in a hundred people on the autism spectrum.

Cliche has it that you curl up with a good book, but the reality is that you curl up in it. Great text is the first-best bed - clean, warm and firm. Kanner's writing is a unique combination of those characteristics, in what his student and colleague Leon Eisenberg called a "final alchemy" of "clarity of observation, freedom from theoretical preconception, personal humility and human empathy". His ability to view the human condition so finely yet so generously ensures that even the most subtle patterns of difference become evident, and amenable to description, if not to explanation.

The collection of 16 papers enables us to see the depth and strength of Kanner's intellect and scholarship. There is, for instance, his 1958 Maudsley Lecture, a brilliant academic review of the history of child psychiatry in which he invites his audience to witness a "parade" of the "loosely scattered fragments" that constitute the discipline, including researchers on mental deficiency, a "delegation" from criminology, psychoanalysis that "passes by with eclat and fanfare", the pioneers of child guidance clinics, and educators, all led by psychiatry. It is the work of a polymath, with wit and passion and poetry.

The final paper, an evaluation and follow-up of children he studied at the Linwood Centre in Maryland, is unpublished elsewhere. That it may remain out of print is a serious loss to those who value Kanner's incisive and simple prose, and his gentle insistence that we notice the things he saw, with the value he placed on those deviations and differences being as insightful as Gerard Manley Hopkins' observation in As Kingfishers Catch Fire: "What I do is me: for that I came."

The first octet of Hopkins' curtal sonnet remains my own hymn to diversity. But it is now equalled, as I study autistic intelligence, by Kanner's positive understanding of that proportion of his cohort who "emerged" into sociability a little later than most, without programmed coercion or pity: "Nobody had shoved them forcibly through a gate which others had tried to unlock for them; it was they who, at first timidly and experimentally, then more resolutely, paved their way to it and walked through."

Please, could someone reprint this first-best book?

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