By Jill Escher
A new book by Bay Area scholar of German history Edith Sheffer tells a detailed, grisly story of the Nazi disability death machine and the role within it played by Hans Asperger, the Vienna clinician for whom the now defunct diagnosis of “Asperger’s Syndrome” was named. “Asperger’s Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Germany” is a chilling masterpiece of modern history, embroidered with layers of detail and insights that make it an invaluable resource for anyone wishing to understand how the Nazi creed of racial hygiene resulted in the unspeakable horror of the sterilization, torture, and murder of countless thousands of children and adults with physical and mental disabilities.
For those interested in the history of autism, however, its relevance is questionable. Indeed the book is almost an argument for why Asperger’s actual work, as opposed to the post-hoc mythologizing of it, has so little bearing on today’s understanding of autism. The “autism” of Asperger is actually his term “autistic psychopathy,” an amorphous and variable politico-psychiatric concept referring mainly to impulsive and nonconforming behavior. From Asperger’s rough description of this ill-defined trait, combined with his own admissions of irrelevance, the origins of “autism” as we know it today in 2018 can hardly be said to have a root in wartime Vienna.
In the psychiatry of the time, the word psychopathy pointed to malice, trouble-making, delinquency, and rebelliousness; it was a word imbued with the potential for criminality. And “autistic” as an adjective to describe a lack of social connectedness. Asperger never delineated much in the way of criteria for his autistic psychopathy — based on Sheffer’s account, it was at best a nebulous concept grounded in failings of “Gemüt,” a term used to describe a fascistic social spirit and the capacity for conforming to social norms.
Asperger’s descriptions of his autistic psychopaths (only four are described in his 1944 paper, one of whom had brain damage) brought to mind not our modern concepts of autism so much as what we today might label Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or Conduct Disorder. Sometimes brain damage, genetic or metabolic disorders, or even Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder seemed to be at play with these children. It’s too easy to get derailed by the “austis—“ in “autistic psychopathy,” and presume relevance to today’s “autism” when the intention was rather different: Asperger was concerned with a personality disorder, not a developmental disorder.