Diagnoses of autism in the US in the last quarter-century have dramatically increased in both number and subtlety, as both psychiatrists and the general public have grown more knowledgeable and sensitive to detecting and understanding what autism is and how it manifests itself. Although the term autism was first introduced in 1911 by Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler, the whole medical concept took root in the modern culture in 1981 when a psychiatrist named Lorna Wing threw a spotlight on the work of Austrian doctor Hans Asperger and his 1944 thesis about autistic behaviors in children.
Historian Edith Sheffer’s intensely fascinating new book, Asperger’s Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna, turns the focus onto Hans Asperger himself in a clearly landmark English-language biography. Sheffer prodigiously researches the shape of Asperger’s mind and career as it appears in historical records. The typical thumbnail overview of Asperger – a view initially crafted by the man himself – is that of an unwilling ally of the Nazi regime, a devout Catholic who never became a Nazi Party member and did what he could, including risking arrest or death, to protect autistic children from the macabre and deadly Nazi fixation with eugenics, racial purity, and euthanasia.