A different tale this time: of mystery, child abuse, deprivation, political intrigue and murder all rolled into one. A tale of a young man who suddenly appeared in Nuremberg in 1828; walking painfully and clumsily - as if uncertain how to walk.

The young man, found to be one Kasper Hauser, carried two letters, one addressed to ‘The Captain of the 4th Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment’ to whose home he was taken. Only able to speak only a few words and seemingly unable to comprehend anything at all, he met all questions with a blank look, merely repeating the questions he was asked.

After examination by the local mayor, doctor and others, it gradually became apparent that he had been kept in a dark cellar from early childhood until he was nearly seventeen with only a rocking horse for company and without ever seeing his ‘keeper’ who fed him on bread and water.

The ‘Nuremberg Enigma’ as Kasper came to be known, And yet he seemed extremely unusual for he had exceptionally acute senses, which seemed almost paranormal: no he could hear exceptionally well and could even see in the dark (being observed reading from the Bible in a totally darkened room). He was also remarkably sensitive to food or drink – even a drop of wine or coffee, mixed clandestinely with his water, gave him a violent headache or made him vomit. He also seemed to lack the words for and even the conception of, most common objects and was indifferent to all the usual customs, conveniences, and necessities of life.

Mild, obedient, and good-natured, Kasper went on to become an international celebrity - and even wrote an autobiography, although it contained no clues to his identity. Whilst some believed him a fraud, it was also rumored that he was in fact a member of the royal family who had perhaps been treated in that awful manner because he had seemed to be slightly retarded; a rumor which gained credibility after two assassination attempts, the second of which succeeded.

Certainly Anselm von Feuerbach, a famous lawyer who knew Kaspar personally, believed his story. He described Kasper's treatment as a ‘crime on the soul of man’ and even tried – unsuccessfully - to have murder of the soul inserted in the criminal code of Bavaria as a punishable crime.

Fortunately Feuerback also left us details of Kasper's later life writing:

His (Kasper's) present mode of life is that which is common to most men. With the exception of pork, he eats all kinds of meats that are not seasoned with hot spices. His favorite condiments are still caraway, fennel, and coriander. His drink continues to be water; and only in the morning, he takes a cup of unspiced chocolate instead of it. All fermented liquors, beer, and wine, as also tea and coffee are still an abomination to him; and, if a few drops of them were forced upon him, they would infallibly make him sick.

The extraordinary, almost preternatural, elevation of his senses, had also been diminished, and has almost sunk to the common level. He is indeed still able to see in the dark; so that, in respect to him, there exists no real night but only twilight; but he is no longer able to read in the dark nor to recognize the most minute objects at a great distance. Whereas he was formerly able to see much better and more distinctly in a dark night than by day-light, the contrary is now the case. Like other men, he is now able to bear, and he loves, the light of the sun, and it no longer distresses his eyes. Of the gigantic powers of his memory, and of other astonishing qualities, not a trace remains. He no longer retains any thing that is extraordinary, but his extraordinary fate, his = indescribable goodness, and the exceeding amiableness of his disposition'.

Feuerbach also offers us a real insight into Kasper's life when he describes an incident that happened when he took Kasper to look at a beautiful view and how, after his initial delight, Kasper soon became sad, saying:

"I was just thinking how many beautiful things there are in the world, and how hard it is for me to have lived so long and to have seen nothing of them; and how happy children are who have been able to see all these things from their earliest infancy, and can still look at them. I am already so old, and am still obliged to learn what children knew long ago. I wish I had never come out of my cage; he who put me there should have left me there. Then I should never have known and felt the want of any thing; and I should not have experienced the misery of never haying been a child, and of having come so late into the world."

Now the truth is clear. DNA tests – from samples on Kasper's hat, trousers and hair curls, - proved positive, showing a 95% match to Astrid von Medinger, a descendant of Stephanie de Beauharnais, Napoleon = Bonaparte's adopted daughter. So it is not so far fetched to assume that he might well have been kept in such conditions and that, after attempts to discredit his story failed, he was eventually killed because of who rather than what he was.

Even today some people remain skeptical; believing that Hauser's account can't possibly be true, or should at least not be taken literally; suggesting that he would either have remained an idiot and/or would not have survived the type of isolation that he described; some people even suggesting that he was on the autistic spectrum.

A strange and mysterious early life. An untimely and unexplained death. We shall never know the full details of his captivity or death with any certainty but we can certainly use our knowledge of ASD to determine whether the latter suggestion is true.

Initially it seems that some signs point that way and yet in time many of those seemingly identifiable signs diminished. Thus his exceptional hypersensitivity and his brilliant memory, both gradually 'became more ordinary' in time. Then there was his initial inability to understand conversations. And yet his speech and comprehension developed so rapidly after he arrived in Nuremberg that he surely must have been exposed to some speech prior to his incarceration - for otherwise it is doubtful that he would have been able to develop his verbal skills as he did. It is also clear that Kasper lacked the rigidity of thought so common amongst people with ASD.

So was Kasper on the spectrum? I rather doubt it. Do you?

Adapted from forthcoming series The Autism Code

Author's Bio: 

Stella Waterhouse is a writer and therapist who has worked children and adults with a variety of learning differences since the late 1960’s.

In the mid 1980s Stella worked at a residential home for approximately 40 adults with Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD), where she became Deputy Principal.

In the 1990s Stella set out to write a short book on the role of anxiety in autism., which at that time received little attention. Her research led her to investigate the causes of ASD as well as role of sensory disorders - particularly those of an auditory or visual nature.

The original 'short' book evolved into a much larger project and has so far spawned two full length books including A Positive Approach to Autism - Jessica Kingsley Publishers, plus a series of short books for parents and teachers all of which are currently available as e-books.

Stella is currently completing her new series The Autism Code. For more information on Stella and her products please visit www.positiveapproachestoasd.com