Did A Soviet Psychiatrist Discover Autism In 1925?

By Neuroskeptic | April 2, 2015 5:25 am

Who discovered autism? Traditionally, the priority has been ascribed to two psychiatrists, Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger, who both published independent but remarkably similar descriptions of the syndrome in 1943 – 44 (although Asperger had released a preliminary description in 1938.)


But according to a new paper in the Nordic Journal of Psychiatry, both Kanner and Asperger were scooped by nearly two decades – by a Soviet child psychiatrist, Grunya Efimovna Sukhareva. She described a syndrome with striking resemblances to what was later called ‘autism’ – although Sukhareva never used that particular word. She first published in Russian in 1925, and then in German in 1926.

Sukhareva’s paper was a case report on six boys who she had treated at the Psychoneurological Department for Children in Moscow. She called the boys’ syndrome schizoiden Psychopathien (schizoid psychopathy) and the symptoms were remarkably consistent with those of Kanner’s and (especially) Asperger’s later descriptions.

According to Sukhareva, schizoid psychopathy was characterized by “lack of facial expressiveness”, isolation and lack of social interaction, and odd and socially inappropriate behavior. They also had a “tendency towards automatism”: stereotypic behaviors and speech, obsessive interests, disliking interruptions, and wanting things to always happen in the same way. She also held that these children had normal or superior intelligence, were sensitive to noise and smell, and were sometimes musically gifted.

This could almost serve as a modern description of autism.

So did Kanner or Asperger know of Sukhareva’s work? It is possible that they did, as they were both natives of Austria and native German speakers. However, there’s no direct evidence that either of them were aware of Sukhareva’s work. If they were, they failed to give her credit. (EDIT: Michelle Dawson pointed out on Twitter that this is incorrect. Leo Kanner actually cited Sukhareva in a 1949 paper. The new paper overlooks this.)

Sukhareva was born in Kiev (then part of the Russian Empire, now Ukraine) in 1891. She graduated in medicine in 1915, and went on to have a long career in child psychiatry. She worked in Moscow until she retired in 1969, having been awarded the title of Honored Scientist of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. She died in Moscow in 1981. The authors of the new paper say that:

Being Jewish, a citizen of the Soviet Union and publishing in German and Russian, in addition to being a woman, may at the time not have been a successful formula for achieving international acclaim. However, Sukhareva is remembered locally; a commemorative article was recently published in Russian in honor of the 120th anniversary of her birth, but she deserves a wider recognition for her work.

ResearchBlogging.orgManouilenko I, & Bejerot S (2015). Sukhareva – Prior to Asperger and Kanner. Nordic Journal of Psychiatry, 1-4 PMID: 25826582

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  • shudBwerkin

    “Being Jewish”…didn’t hold Einstein back.

  • Silk VanLeer

    Einstein was not working in the Soviet Union.

  • Veronica Frances Bloomberg

    Being Jewish has nothing to do with it. It’s worldwide prejudice against soviets.

  • adriant.esq@btinternet.com

    Grunya Sukhareva has been credited in Wikipedia for a few years as the first to catalogue the symptoms of what the UN calls Asperger syndrome. I dont think the article where thats mentioned [Wikipedia: Hans Asperger] says that she called it schizoid psychopathy, but elsewhere says that the Russian authorities she worked for called called political dissidents schizo psychopaths so they could incarcerate them as dangers to public health and wellbeing. I have on many occasions over the past two years called Asperger syndrome, Sukhareva syndrome, in Answers I have written on the Yahoo Answers website, as I’m convinced in my own mind that it was she, not Kanner or Asperger, that recognized the condition first. In fact I believe that John Langdon Down should be credited with mentioning the condition first. though he called it Idiot Savantism, which was the C19th and earlier Anglo Norman English colloquial name for the suicidal version of it that we find nowadays is the subject of research reports in the USA (Penn State University) and the UK (Cambridge University). I am aware that my ancestral extended family were regarded as ‘parfait savants’ by the English Crown for resisting suicide ideation. I’ve been tracking the etymological history of ‘parfait savantism’ back through my family history, and find it came into the British Isles with William the Conqueror and his Squires of the Shires who became his ubiquitous County Surveyors when he was awarded the allodial title of them by the Holy Roman Empire on the evidence of the Great Survey Book of Winchester, now called the Domesday Book. which is the earliest land law book still extant, maintained on deposit at the Crown Archive, Kew Palace, Richmond on Thames, London.

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  • http://autisminnb.blogspot.ca/ Harold L Doherty

    ” “She also held that these children had normal or superior intelligence, were sensitive to noise and smell, and were sometimes musically gifted.

    This could almost serve as a modern description of autism.””

    Really? Sounds like you are intentionally excluding those with autism disorder AND intellectual disability:

    The World Health Organization, September , 2013 – “It is estimated that around 50% of persons with ASD also suffer from an intellectual disability.” http://www.who.int/features/qa/85/en/

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      Well, I wasn’t referring specifically to the “Normal or superior intelligence” part when I said it was almost a modern description of autism… but you’re quite right.

      • David N. Andrews MEd, CPSE

        You should take Doherty’s comments with a pinch of salt … everybody else with any sense does. He’s not an expert and has no training.

  • ohwilleke

    The situation in the mathematics of chaos theory is somewhat similar. Many of the foundational ideas developed by a lone wolf Russian mathematican languished unread for more than half a century before another researcher discovered and expanded upon that research and developed a follow to the point where it became a major subfield of the discipline.

    Regrettably, at some level, a part of the scientific process is getting people to accept the ideas that you are proposing on a widespread basis, and not merely coming up with them. Academic work involves advocacy of good ideas as well as generation of them.

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Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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