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

Title: Asperger’s Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna

Author: Edith Sheffer

Publisher: W.W. Norton, 317 pages

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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.

Hans Asperger, around 1940.

Wiener Stadt- und Landesarchiv

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.

The book’s most disturbing chapters detail the child-killing system, which took macabre advantage of the byzantine network of social institutions developed in 1920s Red Vienna. In facilities such as Spiegelgrund, children were sterilized, abused, experimented on and killed, slowly and painfully, through barbiturate overdoses. Sheffer’s approach is dispassionate (necessarily, one feels), but the individual cases she describes are vivid, wrenching and make for difficult reading.

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Asperger, she is careful to say, didn’t personally euthanize children, but he knowingly sent dozens to staff who would. In this, Sheffer argues, he had considerable leeway. Unlike the Nazis’ Final Solution, which called for the murder of all Jews, the goals of the child-killing program were less well defined: “None of these were simple or ordinary actions,” she writes. “They required initiative, determination and improvisations.” After the war, Asperger, cleared of wrongdoing, went on to a long, successful career in which he played down his complicity and emphasized the risks he took to save children, whom he subtly returned to speaking about in more compassionate terms.

The question of complicity – a term much discussed lately, albeit for different reasons – is very much the subtext of Sheffer’s book. And it is her intelligent, measured exploration of its nuances that makes Asperger’s Children transcend the specificity of its subject matter. She makes germane comparisons, too, between the Nazi culture of categorization and diagnosis and the one that has arisen around children since the nineties.

And although she says her intention is not to indict Asperger, a much-publicized paper by historian Herwig Czech that appeared earlier this year in the journal Molecular Autism has used previously unaccessed state archives to do exactly that.

The neurodiversity movement continues to gain steam as the reputations of autism’s diagnostic pioneers crumble around it. In his best-selling 2015 book NeuroTribes, Steve Silberman debunked American psychiatrist Leo Kanner’s supposed “simultaneous discovery” of autism as intellectual theft. Kanner was already notorious, as was Bruno Bettelheim, for blaming autism on toxic mothering.

These days, autistic people have a lot to say about how they see themselves, how they want to be treated and how neurotypicals misconstrue them – and we need to listen, regardless of what they choose to call themselves.

Emily Donaldson is the editor of Canadian Notes & Queries.

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