October 23, 2018

Review: Edith Sheffer’s Asperger’s Children examines the infamous doctor behind the disorder


The Viennese pediatrician Hans Asperger first used the term “autistic psychopathy” to describe the group of characteristics now recognized as autism in a 1938 paper delivered under the recent shadow of Hitler’s Anschluss. “Asperger’s syndrome” was named for him, posthumously, in the early 1980s, and entered the DSM as a standalone diagnosis in 1994. In 2013, it was removed, having been absorbed into the wider umbrella of autism spectrum disorder.

Resistance to the move was surprisingly vehement. And Asperger’s has persisted as an informal means of describing those with so-called “high-functioning” autism; generally speaking, people who are verbal, have average or above-average intelligence, but who struggle socially. Those who self-identify as Asperger’s often refer to themselves, charmingly, as “Aspies.” Some favour the term for what they perceive as reduced stigma.

By putting Hans Asperger’s career in Nazi Vienna under an unfavourable new lens, historian Edith Sheffer’s riveting and often devastating book, Asperger’s Children,may well accomplish what Asperger’s exile from the DSM failed to. Readers are likely to conclude that the stigma lies not with the diagnosis, but with its namesake.

Part of what makes this interesting is the fact that Asperger has been largely depicted as a benign figure until now. In his initial refusal to pathologize autism, he has even been seen as a before-the-fact champion of neurodiversity, which posits neurological variations as a normal part of the genome. Unlike his medical colleagues, who included Erwin Jekelius, the most prominent figure in Vienna’s child and adult euthanasia programs, Asperger never joined the Nazi party. His decision to remain openly Catholic despite the Third Reich’s castigation of religion has been interpreted as a form of resistance. Others see him as a Schindler-like figure who protected autistic people by arguing that their brilliance and special skills could be of value to the state.

Sheffer counters the latter by noting that Asperger’s negative pronouncements about autistic people during the Third Reich far outweighed the positive ones. “Autistic originality,” he warned, could “be nonsensical, eccentric, and useless.” For a regime that measured individual worth precisely according to its utility, statements such as that were frequently a death sentence. Chillingly, Sheffer charts how, through a “cascade of microsteps,” Asperger altered his approach to his subjects during the war years to align it with the tenets of Nazi child psychology and philosophy. Key to the latter was the concept of Gemuet, the ability to form meaningful bonds with others. Though primarily focused on those with biological disabilities, the Nazis’ euthanasia program (estimated to have killed up to 10,000 children) also targeted those perceived to be lacking Gemuet; in other words, those who simply didn’t fit in.

Asperger had other unsavoury aspects. He was a self-proclaimed eugenicist who held memberships in far-right and anti-Semitic organizations well beyond the minimum expected. His approach to the children he treated was also profoundly sexist: Characteristics he lauded in male children, such as a propensity for abstract or creative thinking, were condemned in females, whom he deemed intellectually inferior.

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