Edith Sheffer has written a book that defies easy categorization — an appropriate, if perhaps inadvertent, response to her fascinating and terrible subject matter. In “Asperger’s Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna,” she shows how the Third Reich’s obsession with categories and labels was inextricable from its murderousness; what at first seems to be a book about Dr. Hans Asperger and the children he treated ends up tracing the sprawling documentary record of a monstrous machine.
It wasn’t long ago that the autism community considered Asperger a hero, a Nazi-era pediatrician who championed neurodiversity and the special talents of his “high-functioning” patients in order to save their lives. In 2015, Steve Silberman’s best-selling “NeuroTribes” depicted Asperger as a courageous figure who emphasized his patients’ potential usefulness to the Nazi war effort. According to that narrative, Asperger’s diagnosis saved children from the regime’s eugenicists, amounting to a kind of Schindler’s list.