Asperger’s Children by Edith Sheffer

Asperger’s Children traces as the subtitle says, The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna.

Today one in sixty-eight children is diagnosed with autism. The term was introduced in 1911 by Eugene Bleuler, a Swiss psychiatrist but the “father” of autism was Hans Asperger, a Nazi psychiatrist from Vienna. Austria initially embraced the Third Reich and its goal of transforming human behaviour. Some people would be transformed and others eliminated.

The Final Solution and resulting Holocaust are well known. What isn’t nearly as well known is the program to euthanize children who wouldn’t be useful to the Nazi machine. The disabled, the paralyzed, the slow thinkers, the bed wetters, the harelips, the epileptics, the ineducable, the unable to work were all categories of children to get rid of. They had to connect to the “collective” of National Socialism. If they weren’t useful to the regime in some way, it was deemed best to remove their burden on society.

Aperger’s Children is Edith Sheffers’ history of autism and how it was a creation of Dr. Hans Asperger to describe children who had trouble making eye contact, making friends, and with social contact. Before the Nazis came to Vienna, he worked with children he called autistic pychopaths and tried to help them. As Austria was absorbed into the Nazi expansion, he was drawn in to the euthanasia for “useless” (my term) children. Reputable Jewish psychiatrists left Vienna, as did others who felt threatened. Asperger stayed and over the war years, he published and refined his defintion and diagnosis of autism. In the beginning, he seemed more humane and involved in trying to help children. Besides the obvious categories listed above, rebellious children, those who defied parents, or were viewed as an expense were referred to him and others like him. Arbitrarily. children as old as 16 were evaluated as salvageable or sent to Pavilion 17 in Spiegelgrund, a clinic for problem youth. Many children entered Pavilion 17 healthy and left in a death cart. Some were subjected to medical experiments; all were mistreated, even tortured.

Dr. Hans Asperger was a part of this killing program. He didn’t directly administer needles or perform experimental surgeries but he did diagnose and send children to Pavilion 17. He was well aware of their fate and as the war progressed, he tailored his papers and lectures to reflect Nazi policies more and more. One thing he never did was join the Nazi party although he did join several organizations affiliated with it. He was a Catholic and these two things saved him when the Allies arrived.

Only three of the doctors involved in the death program in Spiegelgrund were prosecuted for their part in euthanizing children. They received short sentences they didn’t fully serve. Other doctors, nurses and workers had a similar fate and after the war were back working in children’s clinics.

Dr. Hans Asperger continused as a psychiatrist and held several chairs and leading positions at universities. He didn’t pursue his autism work but went on to different interests. It was in 1981, that Lorna Wing, a leading British psychiatrist, discovered his 1944 thesis and from it came the description and designation of Asperger’s syndrome. She was fascinated by his patients’ symptoms and how they were related to Gemut (a German term referring to an individual’s connection to the collective, almost like a soul, and very much the social aspect of a person.)

In the 1990’s the autism idea took off. The diagnosis could be low-functioning, medium-functioning, or high functioning. The scary thing is that the diagnosis began with Asperger’s work in Nazi Vienna. It wasn’t well-documented, the number of patients he examined was low, and his research flimsy. Yet, today, children are treated using his ideas of what may be wrong with them.

This was a difficult post to write. The work at Spiegelgrund was so horrifying and Asperger ended up with his name attached to the condition he used to send children to their deaths. Asperger’s Children is a difficult book to read; I could only handle a chapter at a time. It is an important book, though, and one that is well worth biting your lip and getting through.