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Spotlight on Theodore Heller

written by: Sandi Johnson • edited by: Elizabeth Wistrom • updated: 2/18/2011

Theodor Heller was a Viennese educator who studied psychology under Wilhelm Wundt in Leipzig. He is credited with discovering Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, which he first described as dementia infatilis in the first decade of the 20th century.

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    Dr. Theodor Heller was born in Vienna in 1869. In 1894, he completed his psychology education under the tutelage of Wilhelm Wundt. His doctoral thesis covered extensive studies on the psychology of the blind, as his father expected him to become a teacher of blind students. Heller’s father, Simon Heller, served as director of Hohe Warte in Vienna, an Israeli institute for the blind.

    In 1904, the young Dr. Theodor Heller began a professional path that would lead to his extensive work on dementia infatilis, the beginning of Childhood Disintegrative Disorder. Heller published papers on curative education and the need for educators and doctors to work together to teach children with mental disabilities. Between 1904 and 1914, Heller published A Floor Plan for Curative Education, Educational Therapy, and other works on childhood psychopathology.

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    The Emergence of Dementia Infantilis

    In 1908, Theodor Heller first published works reporting several cases of children with whom he worked. He noted that upon observing these children many of their characteristic behaviors and abilities did not relate to schizophrenia or mental retardation, but rather pointed to some other common denominator. He delved further into patient records and noted several patients exhibited the same stereotypical behavior, as well as having similar medical histories, symptomatology, and other common factors.

    Each of the children Heller studied and later wrote about were labeled with some form of mental defect. In fact, many of these children were labeled with intelligence reports at the idiot level. However, each child’s history reported the same normal development up to a certain age, when abilities in cognitive function, language, and other development slowed or began to reverse.

    Heller noted that sometime between toddlerhood and the sixth year of life, these children regressed to such as state as to be labeled mentally handicapped, exhibiting many similar signs and symptoms of adult dementia and schizophrenia patients. While cognitive function and other symptoms suggested mental retardation, paranoia and anxiety indicated schizophrenia. Heller characterized these symptoms into a disorder he called dementia infantilis.

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    Developmental, Psychiatric, or Something Else?

    While Heller published about his work with children, other renowned professionals also published works on similar children. Drs. Emil Kraepelin and Eugen Bleuler (who first coined the term “autism" to describe certain schizophrenia symptoms) both wrote extensively on dementia praecox, a disorder of premature dementia that begins in early adolescence.

    Dr. J. Zappert argued that the symptoms seen by Dr. Heller in his dementia infantilis were merely another form of dementia praecox. Other psychiatrists of the time also expressed the opinion that symptoms now associated with Childhood Disintegrative Disorder related to early onset dementia, rather than a developmental disorder. Still more argued that the symptoms were directly relative to a schizophrenic diagnosis.

    Heller continued studying dementia infantilis in conjunction with his work on curative education. However, Zappert was the first to clarify the disorder with specific diagnostic criteria. Before his death in 1938, Heller’s professional work and published papers focused more on curative education and the need for cooperation between remedial educators and medical professionals and less on what later became Childhood Disintegrative Disorder. In the mid 1920s until his death, Heller served as co-founder, president, or chairman for numerous boards and organizations devoted to curative education.

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    References and Resources

    Yale University, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder http://childstudycenter.yale.edu/autism/information/cdd.aspx

    EBSCOhost http://connection.ebscohost.com/content/article/1043108112.html;jsessionid=5E1D8EA4D2C8B3ED1A85ECA8686221B0.ehctc1

    Dementia Infantilis http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1830557/

    Journal of Intellectual Disability Research http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2788.1957.tb00002.x/abstract