William & Mary

Kanner, Asperger, and Frankl: A third man at the genesis of the autism diagnosis

Scholars have long speculated about how Kanner and Asperger’s descriptions of autistic behavior appeared just 1 year apart in America and Austria even as World War II had severed communication between the two countries. Both conspiracy and serendipity have been alleged, but a simpler explanation has now emerged. Autistic knowledge crossed the Atlantic with Georg Frankl—a previously unrecognized “man in the middle” who followed his fiancé to America. The evidence presented here fills in many blanks and suggests both Kanner and Asperger benefited from Frankl’s insight. He was a guiding force for both men: unseen until now because he left very little in the way of published papers. To the end of their lives, Kanner and Asperger described their conditions as separate and distinct. Today, they are both part of the Autism Spectrum in Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). This article explains how and why Kanner and Asperger saw their descriptions as different. It makes the case that Georg Frankl helped both men see autism as we know it today and first saw the breadth of that continuum.