Asperger’s Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna

Asperger's Children Book Edith Sheffer

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A groundbreaking exploration of the chilling history behind an increasingly common diagnosis.

In 1930s and 1940s Vienna, child psychiatrist Hans Asperger sought to define autism as a diagnostic category, aiming to treat those children, usually boys, he deemed capable of participating fully in society. Depicted as a compassionate and devoted researcher, Asperger was in fact deeply influenced by Nazi psychiatry. Although he did offer individualized care to children he deemed promising, he also prescribed harsh institutionalization and even transfer to Spiegelgrund, one of the Reich’s deadliest killing centers, for children with greater disabilities, who, he held, could not integrate into the community.

With sensitivity and passion, Edith Sheffer’s scrupulous research reveals the heartbreaking voices and experiences of many of these children, while also illuminating a Nazi regime obsessed with sorting the population into categories, cataloging people by race, heredity, politics, religion, sexuality, criminality, and biological defects―labels that became the basis of either rehabilitation or persecution and extermination.

With the ubiquity of autism in our neurodiverse world, the Viennese pediatrician HansAsberger has become a cult hero. Indeed many would rather speak of “Asperger’sSyndrome” than autism just as we have replaced “mongolism” with “Down’s Syndrome.”In what will now the definitive study of Asberger and his relationship to the mostnefarious aspects of Nazi eugenics, the selective murder of “defective children,” one ofour most original historians of medicine Edith Sheffer has laid out the case against ouridealizing of any physician without truly understanding their embeddedness in thecomplex scientific and political world of their time. An important, well-written andextremely timely book.” — Sander L. Gilman, author of Seeing the Insane

Edith Sheffer is a superb guide to the complex and disturbing world of Nazi childpsychiatry that produced the Viennese doctor Hans Asperger and his influential diagnosisof autistic psychopathy. The book is magnificently written and researched; it also reflectsprofound thinking about the origins of autism in medical, historical, and cultural terms.The discussions of this widely known but imperfectly understood range of conditionstoday will be enlightened by this revealing book.” — Norman M. Naimark, author of Genocide: A World History

While he was certainly not a monster, of which there were many, Asperger was also nosaint, nor was he the ‘resistor’ he subsequently claimed to be. While the subject matter ofSheffer’s book is depressing, her skills as a story teller ensure it is always gripping. Thisis a very valuable contribution to the relatively neglected history of Austria in the ThirdReich, and perhaps more importantly, to the inadequacies of medical diagnosis.”  –Michael Burleigh, author of The Third Reich: A New History and The Best of Times, TheWorst of Times: A History of Now