Apologies to the dick tater for paragraph 5. It was the teaser. Couldn't resist.How history forgot the woman who defined autism
Grunya Sukhareva characterized autism nearly two decades before Austrian doctors Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger. So why did the latter get all the credit?
It was 1924 when the 12-year-old boy was brought to the Moscow clinic for an evaluation. By all accounts, he was different from his peers. Other people did not interest him much, and he preferred the company of adults to that of children his own age. He never played with toys: He had taught himself to read by age 5 and spent his days reading everything he could instead. Thin and slouching, the boy moved slowly and awkwardly. He also suffered from anxiety and frequent stomachaches.
At the clinic, a gifted young doctor, Grunya Efimovna Sukhareva, saw the boy. Caring and attentive, she observed him with a keen eye, noting that he was “highly intelligent” and liked to engage in philosophical discussions. By way of a diagnosis, she described him as “an introverted type, with an autistic proclivity into himself.”
‘Autistic’ was a relatively new adjective in psychiatry at the time. About a decade earlier, Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler had coined the term to describe the social withdrawal and detachment from reality often seen in children with schizophrenia. Sukhareva’s characterization came nearly two decades before Austrian doctors Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger published what have long been considered to be the first clinical accounts of autism. At first, Sukhareva used ‘autistic’ in the same way Bleuler did — but as she started to see other children with this trait, she decided to try to characterize it more fully.
Over the course of the following year, she identified five more boys with what she described as “autistic tendencies.” All five also showed a preference for their own inner world, yet each had his own peculiarities or talents. One was an extraordinarily gifted violinist but struggled socially; another had an exceptional memory for numbers but could not recognize faces; yet another had imaginary friends who lived in the fireplace. None were popular with other children, she noted, and some saw peer interaction as useless: “They are too loud,” one boy said. “They hinder my thinking.”
In 1925, Sukhareva published a paper describing in detail the autistic features the six boys shared. Her descriptions, though simple enough for a nonspecialist to understand, were remarkably prescient.
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