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June 13, 2018

The Auto-Immune Imagination: Moving On from Dr. Hans Asperger

A review of the new book by Edith Sheffer, Asperger’s Children: The Origin of Autism in Nazi Vienna.

Dear fellow oddballs: this man is not your friend, and never was.

One day recently I was minding my own business and planning to write either a long article or a short book about how many of our seismic shifts in art, science, or culture were brought about by people who could charitably be called “not exactly normal.” It was not only obvious but even well known that figures ranging from Einstein to Tesla were, to say the least, operating off the beaten path, and also equally obvious that it was because they marched to a different drummer that they came up with such simple but earth-shattering notions such as alternating current engines and wireless data transmission, long before any normals dreamed they were possible.
It was going to be called “The Outsiders Club: How Visionary Eccentrics Transformed Our World and Why We Need Them to Do It Again.” I even had a great epigram planned to start the ball rolling, one that originated with the somewhat quirky inventor of conceptual art, Marcel Duchamp, when he cheekily remarked, “There is no solution to the problem because there is no problem.” The basic premise was that there is a popular old adage that people who behave themselves rarely make history. We might add that people who don’t always play well with others sometimes come up with startling insights that help the rest of us while they’re in the midst of their secluded solitude.

In the interest of full disclosure (something that “my kind” are often prone to in inordinate degrees) I used to have Asperger’s Syndrome, but I had to give it up for my health. Not only am I not half-joking, I’m not joking at all. Part of what enabled me to dispense with all therapeutic labels of any kind was the discovery of a remarkable new book by Edith Sheffer entitled Asperger’s Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna. Recently published by WW Norton (Penguin/Random House), this book is so startling in its historical revelations that it’s almost mind-boggling why no one else since 1945 has ever ventured to look at what was staring everyone in the face for all these years.

While I was engaged in the fascinating research for this probably never-to-be-written book of mine, I encountered several articles about a new and actually published book on the secret history and hidden roots of the man whose name has become accidentally and erroneously associated with the supposedly benevolent spectrum that bears his name. It was a kind of confluence of events that overlapped; I might call it a disharmonic convergence of sorts, with several articles and essays suddenly lining themselves up for consideration in the shared context of this breathtakingly scary Edith Sheffer book.

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