What we now call autism has surely been a part of the human condition for as long as human beings have existed. But the way different cultures understand, talk about and treat people who exhibit the symptoms of autism — difficulty or disinterest in social interactions, repetitive behaviors and language impairments — can vary widely. After all, writes historian Edith Sheffer, “diagnoses reflect a society’s values, concerns, and hopes.” In “Asperger’s Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Germany,” Sheffer tells the story of the Hans Asperger, a child psychiatrist in Austria whose work before and during the Third Reich led to a broader definition of autism.
For decades, Asperger’s syndrome was the label given to children like those he had treated at the University of Vienna’s Children’s Hospital. Far from the much more severely affected patients described by Leo Kanner, the Johns Hopkins psychiatrist who first wrote about autism in the United States, these children were often intelligent, even brilliant. The idea that autism could mean difference rather than disorder, that neurodiversity could represent a source of strength, stemmed in part from his work in curative education, a field that came from the cosmopolitan, leftist milieu of Vienna between the world wars. Because he emphasized the value of treating the whole child and respecting individual children’s differences, Sheffer notes, “Asperger is often portrayed as a champion of neurodiversity.”
And yet, Sheffer goes on, “it is time to consider what Asperger actually wrote and did in greater depth.” In this compact, restrained and ultimately devastating book, Sheffer does just that. A shy and bookish child, Hans Asperger grew up to love science and nature, hiking and mountain-climbing, and the conservative Catholicism of his youth. He attended medical school in Vienna, which World War I had left “a cauldron of social upheaval, political strife, and economic catastrophe.” A progressive welfare state sought to improve citizens’ lives through improvements in public housing, education, and healthcare. Alongside what reformers lauded as “positive” eugenics, of course, came the negative variety: even before the Germans occupied Austria, officials there were advocating for the sterilization of “the inferior.”