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What Is Kanner Syndrome?

By Maggie J. Hall
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Kanner syndrome was first recognized in 1943 by a Johns Hopkins Hospital physician who called the syndrome early infantile autism. Autism belongs to a group of neuropsychiatric diagnoses known as pervasive developmental disorders and that include both Asperger syndrome and Rett syndrome. Infants and children with Kanner syndrome may display a lack of communication and social skills early or may develop normally, only to regress into withdrawal. Symptoms vary from patient to patient, as does treatment, which generally includes methods to improve communication and social skills using the child's particular interests and the use of positive reinforcement.

Some children inherit Kanner syndrome, acquiring a genetic defect. Researchers theorize that many factors might contribute to the syndrome, including environmental conditions or immune system or metabolic disorders. Scientists also believe that mineral and vitamin deficiencies or food allergies may trigger symptoms. Autistic symptoms can also occur because of other neurological disorders.

The symptoms associated with Kanner syndrome sometimes begin early in childhood. Infants may avoid eye contact, fail to respond to audio or verbal stimulation, and fail to vocalize, leading parents to wonder if the child is deaf. Babies with the syndrome often do not respond to the facial expressions of others and often remain expressionless themselves. Professionals may diagnose the condition in infants as young as 18 months of age.

Toddlers with Kanner syndrome may not use language and may have difficulty combining words into sentences. The youngsters also do not use gestures such as pointing to indicate needs or wants. Affected children commonly display unique characteristics when playing with toys. Instead of displaying curiosity or imagination while playing, they exhibit fascination with the particular abilities of a toy. Kanner syndrome children might seem content to continuously spin the wheels of a toy car or to repetitively arrange toys in a row.

Repetitive behaviors are common symptoms of Kanner syndrome. Youngsters may rock back and forth continuously or engage in repetitive hand motions. They might also engage in head banging or slapping themselves. These children often keep to themselves and seem uninterested in interacting with people or things in their environment. Some develop hypersensitivities to sound and may cry or become fearful upon hearing the phone ring or thunder rumbling.

Affected children can also develop other sensory sensitivity disorders involving smell, taste, and touch. They may find some odors or flavors particularly offensive or refuse to wear a specific article of clothing because of the way it feels. Older Kanner syndrome children may exhibit learning disabilities or varying degrees of mental retardation.

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