Kanner Syndrome – Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Children’s syndrome

Kanner syndrome is early childhood autism. The interpersonal contact disorder is already evident in babies.

What is Kanner Syndrome?

Kanner syndrome is also known as Kanner autism , infantile autism , or early childhood autism . This is a form of autism that begins before the age of three. The syndrome is considered a pervasive developmental disorder and is more common in boys than girls.

The Austrian-American child and adolescent psychiatrist Leo Kanner (1894-1981), who is considered to be the founder of child and adolescent psychiatry in the USA, was the namesake of Kanner syndrome. In 1943, Kanner diagnosed several children with autistic affective contact disorder . This condition was later dubbed “early childhood autism.”

Kanner syndrome is one of the severe forms of autism. The affected children are impaired in their behavior, their language and their social interactions. Even as babies, they show a striking difference, avoid eye contact and show no reactions to facial expressions or gestures.

Feelings are not understood by them or misinterpreted. Instead, objects are more important to them than people, and they prefer to play with their parents or alone than with other children.


The causes of Kanner syndrome are usually genetic in nature. Studies have shown that 70 to 90 percent of all identical twins examined have autism in both children. In contrast, the proportion of autism in dizygotic twins was only about 23 percent.

What exactly causes Kanner syndrome has not yet been adequately explained. It is assumed that, in addition to genetic factors, functional or structural brain changes also play a role. About every third affected child experiences seizures during the course of the disease . In addition, neurobiological abnormalities such as eating disorders or abnormal crying are recorded.

Studies of brain metabolism revealed differences to the general population. The brain volume of the sick children is larger than that of their peers. In addition, the brain grows faster during pregnancy and in the first years of life. Furthermore, disorders of emotional and cognitive development may be present.

Symptoms, Ailments & Signs

The first symptoms of Kanner syndrome usually appear in the early months of life. It is particularly striking that the affected children avoid or severely limit human contact, which also applies to parents and siblings. Instead, they are more interested in objects and only contact other people when their own needs are addressed.

This emotional coldness of the children is particularly difficult for their parents. So there is no sympathy, happiness or anger. Even eye contact with the mother is avoided. In addition, the autistic children do not make friends and prefer to play alone. Emotions are not understood by children suffering from Kanner Syndrome. They also do not spontaneously express emotions themselves. They often misinterpret their feelings.

Another typical symptom of Kanner’s autism is a language development disorder. Those affected are hardly able to articulate themselves and only have a limited vocabulary. A sentence is often repeated over and over again, or what is said is meaninglessly parroted. Since the language sounds very monotonous, it is reminiscent of a robot.

When playing, the children always follow a certain unimaginative pattern. If their game is interrupted by other people, they become restless or very anxious. Approximately 70 percent of all children with Kanner syndrome have intellectual disabilities that are associated with reduced intelligence .

Unusual talents are very rare in Kanner autism. Sometimes the affected children giggle for no reason and underestimate everyday dangers such as road traffic. Eating disorders, sleep disorders and self-harm also occur.

Diagnosis & disease progression

An important part of the diagnosis is the medical history (anamnesis) and clinical observation of the child by the doctor. The doctor uses scales that serve as an aid. The differential diagnosis is also important. Similar symptoms can also occur in Rett syndrome , Asperger’s syndrome , oligophrenia (disability) or schizophrenia .

The course of Kanner syndrome is often negative. This is not how the disease can be cured. However, if there are no neurological abnormalities or epilepsy , a positive prognosis can still be achieved. The same applies if the language develops relatively well by the age of six and the intelligence quotient is more than 80.


Kanner syndrome is typically associated with reduced intelligence. This can result in life-practical complications if the affected person cannot live independently in adulthood. Some autistic people need support throughout their lives. Restrictions in everyday life are also possible with Asperger’s syndrome – but on average they are less pronounced than with Kanner’s syndrome.

In particular, weaker forms of autism do not have to affect one’s lifestyle. In addition, various neurological disorders are more common in individuals with Kanner’s autism. These diseases include, for example, epilepsy .

The seizures can lead to other complications, including falls, accidental self-harm, and obstruction of the airway, as well as the general stress that the body experiences during an epileptic seizure. Even with treatment, various complications are possible. In particular, Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is increasingly coming under criticism.

The behavioral therapy method is based on operant conditioning and reinforces desired behavior while undesired behavior is punished. ABA is mainly used in children. Some forms of ABA use aversive stimuli that are uncomfortable for the autistic child, although they do not cause physical harm.

In this context, the literature has reported several times about traumatic consequences caused by ABA. Conversely, however, ABA can also have a promoting effect. For this reason, careful application of the method is required.

When should you go to the doctor?

Kanner syndrome usually becomes apparent in the first few years of life. Parents who notice their child feeling cold or other typical symptoms should consult a pediatrician . The rare syndrome can be treated symptomatically if addressed early. The parents should consult a general practitioner or a neurologist and work out a therapy together with them. Further visits to occupational therapists , internists and psychologists are indicated as part of the treatment.

Children showing signs of depression should be referred to a therapist. If seizures or epileptic seizures occur, the emergency doctor must be alerted. Affected children usually need lifelong support. The relatives must keep in close contact with various doctors and therapists and inform them regularly about the constitution of the person concerned. Should unusual symptoms appear or even complications arise, this must be clarified immediately by a doctor. In case of doubt, the medical emergency service can be contacted first.

Treatment & Therapy

A causal therapy of Kanner autism is not possible. Therefore, the sufferer’s symptoms will show up throughout his or her life. However, over the years, they are toned down somewhat. The aim of the treatment is to improve the patient’s communicative and social skills. The sooner the therapy begins, the greater the chances of success.

The child’s social environment also plays a part in the treatment. The focal points of the training of the early autistic children include independence, social skills and communication, language skills through logopedic speech training and self-control. Swimming with dolphins, horseback riding therapy or music therapy are suitable supportive treatment measures .

Since Kanner syndrome is often associated with other diseases such as depression or epilepsy, the administration of drugs such as serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can be useful. However, people with autism are often sensitive to medications, which increases the risk of side effects.

Outlook & Forecast

In order for parents to be able to help as efficiently as possible with the therapy at home, the individual strengths and weaknesses of the affected child must first be determined and a treatment plan drawn up together with doctors.

The main focus must be never to make the child think that they are different from other children or that they are sick. The child should not grow up knowing that something is wrong with him. It is better to emphasize the uniqueness of everyone and to show that everyone has their strengths and weaknesses.

Regular behavioral training helps the child learn how to behave better in certain situations and may help to control any tics. However, this should under no circumstances degenerate into a form of training in which the naturalness of the child is changed by new rules. Rather, it is important to gently show the child ways of reacting and to approach problem-solving step by step.

Depending on the child’s level of development and psychological maturity, additional physiotherapeutic measures and logopedic treatment can be started, some of which can also be integrated into everyday life at home. By contacting kindergartens and schools early on, individual support can also be achieved there, depending on the institute.


There is no way to effectively prevent Kanner syndrome. So its exact causes are not yet known.


In most cases, patients with Kanner syndrome do not have any special and direct options for follow-up care, so that the disease must first and foremost be examined and treated by a doctor. This is the only way to prevent further complications or a further deterioration of the symptoms. Therefore, those affected should contact a doctor at the first signs and symptoms of the disease.

In general, early diagnosis of Kanner syndrome has a very positive effect on the further course of the disease. As a rule, complete healing is not possible, so those affected by Kanner syndrome are dependent on the support and help of friends and their own family. Intensive care is necessary to increase social skills and prevent further complaints.

Intensive and loving conversations with those affected are also necessary so that depression or other mental upsets do not occur. Therapy with music or dolphins is often very helpful in alleviating the symptoms of Kanner syndrome. Since the syndrome is treated in some cases by taking medication, it is important to ensure that it is taken regularly and that the prescribed dosage is followed.

You can do that yourself

Children suffering from Kanner syndrome require individual therapy that is tailored to the symptoms and suffering.Regular behavioral training is particularly important. The child should learn to integrate and control any tics. This is where the parents come in, who have to deal with the child and the illness and work out an appropriate therapy together with the doctor and the psychologist . The aim is to determine the strengths and weaknesses of the child and then to promote or treat them in a targeted manner. In some cases, physiotherapy and/or speech therapy can be included in the treatment. Which measures make sense depends entirely on the child’s level of development and mental maturity. A therapist must assess whether a particular therapy is appropriate or whether further investigations are necessary.

In principle, however, parents should not give the child the impression that it is different or even sick. It is better to accept a child with early childhood autism as it is and to tackle the problems bit by bit. For this purpose, it makes sense to contact schools and kindergartens and to enable the child to receive individual support.

Lisa Newlon
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Hello! I am Lisa Newlon, and I am a medical writer and researcher with over 10 years of experience in the healthcare industry. I have a Master’s degree in Medicine, and my deep understanding of medical terminology, practices, and procedures has made me a trusted source of information in the medical world.