After UC Berkeley historian Edith Sheffer learned that her 17-month-old son had autism, she did what many parents in her situation do: She read everything she could.
And like many parents, Sheffer soon came across stories about Hans Asperger. In autism circles, he’s long been known as the pioneering Viennese doctor whose name became synonymous in the 1980s and 1990s with a more “favorable” view of autism and its high-functioning variations.
Back in World War II Vienna, Asperger described qualities that are popularly used to explain socially awkward, single-minded math and science whizzes. At various points, people have tossed around the term “Asperger’s” to explain the unique talents of Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg.
“It’s become a way to confer superhuman status on people,” Sheffer, who lives in Palo Alto, said in an interview. “In Silicon Valley, it’s almost a badge of honor.”
But in her new book, Sheffer doesn’t tell a story about Asperger’s contributions to pediatrics or psychiatry.
As the title of Sheffer’s book suggests, “Asperger’s Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna,” she instead presents a dark history of a seemingly dedicated, mild-mannered physician who, according to recently unearthed records, was complicit in Nazi child euthanasia programs that were the regime’s first program in mass extermination.