June 11, 2018

History News Network Review: Edith Sheffer’s Amazing Book, “Asperger’s Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna”

History News Network Edith Sheffer Asperger's Children Book Review


The appalling story behind the man Asperger’s is named for.

Outside of a few endnotes, this book never mentions Steve Silberman’s NeuroTribes. That’s remarkable, because for all practical purposes, Asperger’s Children is a through point-by-point demolition of Silberman’s saintly portrait of Hans Asperger, based on honest research by a real historian. Edith Sheffer is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of European Studies at Berkeley. She has an autistic son, she has studied a vast array of diagnostic records and case histories in psychiatric archives, and she has produced what is by far the best early history of the autism pandemic. And while she is unfailingly polite about it, she recognizes when people are talking nonsense about autism. She says at the outset that her aim “is not to indict any particular individual” or neurodiversity as a concept (16). But in effect Asperger’s Children is a devastating indictment.

Sheffer recognizes that autism is something new: as her subtitle suggests, it originated less than a century ago. She does not attempt to concoct a fanciful “history” of the disorder stretching back into the mists of prehistory. Though she believes that soaring autism rates may be partly attributable to better diagnosis or changing definitions, she does not deny that there is also “an objective increase in symptoms.” (15) (For a robust historical demonstration that autism is a very real, recent, and devastating epidemic, see Dan Olmsted and Mark Blaxill, Denial: How Refusing to Face the Facts about Our Autism Epidemic Hurts Children, Families, and Our Future[2017]. I read a draft of this book and sent comments to the authors.)

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