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What is Kanner Syndrome?

February 8, 2024

When I was a teenager, there was a young boy whose family attended the same church my family did. He had been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). He often exhibited what was viewed as “classic” autism symptoms, at least by 1990s standards. Today, that little boy is a grown man and many would refer to him as having Kanner’s syndrome.

What is Kanner Syndrome? https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/know-more-about-kanner-syndrome/

Kanner’s syndrome is no longer an official diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. However, it is still used as a designation by many. It can help parents understand where their children with autism may fall on the spectrum. It is essentially a “type” of autism and describes a section of the autism spectrum. 

That little boy was my first experience with autism in any form. My knowledge of autism before the diagnosis of both of my sons would be described as superficial at best. But, thanks to that little boy, and his diagnosis of Kanner’s syndrome, I had an understanding of ASD that helped shape my perceptions and improve my relationships with my children with autism as I advocate for them.

What is Kanner Syndrome?

Today, many view Kanner’s syndrome as “Classic Autistic Disorder.” It’s named after Leo Kanner, a pioneer in autism research who first studied children with autism in the 1940s. Kanner’s syndrome includes a lack of communication skills, trouble understanding others, and sensitivity to sensory stimuli. Children with autism often prefer routine more than non-autistic children and usually don’t like interacting with the world around them.

While my younger son, Joey, does not have an official Kanner’s syndrome diagnosis, many of these symptoms describe where he falls on the autism spectrum. He is very sensitive to sound, even demonstrating a fear of public restrooms due to how the echoes and reverberations affect him. He often plays alone rather than with or alongside others. However, he has shown a hyposensitivity to other sensory cues, especially light, taste, and touch.

Kanner’s Syndrome, once considered a distinct diagnosis within the autism spectrum, is no longer recognized as such. In modern diagnostic criteria, the term “Kanner’s Syndrome” has been replaced by “autism spectrum disorder” (ASD) to encompass a broader range of symptoms and presentations.

How Common is Kanner Syndrome?

As scientists study autism spectrum disorders more thoroughly, an increase in the number of children being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders is to be expected. Using the DSM-5 levels of diagnosing autism, as total numbers increase, there will also be an increase in the number of children diagnosed at each level.

During its most recent study, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that one in 36 children have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. As for Kanner’s syndrome, it appears to occur in 1% of children. While that may seem small overall, it’s proving to be more common than once believed.

Symptoms of Kanner Syndrome

According to the Journal of Communication Disorders, Deaf Studies & Hearing Aids, at least seven known symptoms of Kanner’s syndrome exist. These include:

  • Social Interaction
  • Communication Skills
  • Apathy Towards Activity
  • Withdrawal
  • Obsession
  • Routine
  • Behavioral Issues

Let’s take a closer look at each one. 

1. Social Interaction

Many children with Kanner’s syndrome won’t be interested in much social interaction. They are unlikely to want to share their triumphs or sorrows. They often struggle to make friends and miss many nonverbal communication cues. Many will avoid eye contact and have trouble reading body language.

2. Communication

It’s not just nonverbal communication skills children with Kanner’s syndrome may lack. Many may develop speech issues. My son Joey is nonverbal. He doesn’t speak at all, although he does make sounds and has found a way to communicate with an iPad. Still, children with Kanner’s syndrome who can speak may struggle to converse.

3. Apathy Towards Activity

Many children with autism, especially those with Kanner’s syndrome, may not participate in many of the same activities as neurotypical children their age. These children will likely be more focused on an individual part of the activity than the activity as a whole.

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4. Withdrawal

Children with Kanner’s syndrome will often appear withdrawn from everything around them. Even if they are close, they may seem “estranged” from their family.

5. Obsession

While many children with autism may demonstrate obsessive tendencies, children with Kanner’s syndrome will often appear even more fixated on a specific object or subject of conversation than those at the opposite end of the autism spectrum.

6. Routine

Much like having obsessive tendencies, routine is widespread for people with Kanner’s syndrome. They follow a daily routine, and any changes can lead to significant problems.

7. Behavioral Issues

Many people with Kanner’s syndrome experience behavioral issues, whether it is a quick burst of anger or a full-on meltdown.

Managing Kanner’s Syndrome

Much like every level of ASD, there is no cure for Kanner’s syndrome because autism is not a “disease” that needs to be “cured”. However, there are treatments to help manage some of the symptoms. These include:

  • Behavioral Therapy
  • Speech and Language Therapy
  • Medication
  • Specialized Education Programs

The treatment plans to manage Kanner’s Syndrome symptoms can be tailored to the child’s individual needs. One of my children undergoes multiple therapies, has a specialized education program, and takes medication to help with sleep regressions and epilepsy.

Autism Parenting Magazine has also tackled how treatments for autism spectrum disorders, including Kanner’s syndrome, have changed in the past decade.


While Kanner’s syndrome is not an official diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, it is still used as a designation by many. It can help parents understand where their children with autism may fall on the spectrum. 

Much of what we know about autism spectrum disorders today is thanks to the groundbreaking work of Leo Kanner and his initial studies.

The autism community is growing and learning every day. Knowing about designations like Kanner’s syndrome and the DSM-5 levels is essential to help you learn and grow as a parent. You are your child’s best and most important advocate. And if your child is on the level of Kanner syndrome, it’s vital to know the ins and outs of this level.

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