Asperger’s Controversial Past: Doctor Behind Syndrome Linked To Nazis
New historical details link the Austrian pediatrician whose name was used to coin the Asperger’s diagnosis, to the Nazi Party and child euthanasia during World War II.
Hans Asperger, who died in 1980, was known for his research in the field of autism, particularly around what was later dubbed Asperger’s syndrome — considered to be a higher functioning form of autism. A study published Thursday in the journal Molecular Autism by medical historian Herwig Czech unearthed new details about Asperger’s life in Vienna and involvement with Nazi efforts to eliminate children with disabilities.
Czech, based at the Medical University of Vienna, found documentation that showed Asperger — while not a member of the Nazi Party — cooperated with the Third Reich and that his career soared in part due to the elimination of Jewish doctors from his profession. According to Czech, as part of Asperger’s work with the Vienna University Children’s Clinic, Asperger referred children he viewed as having severe mental disabilities to the Am Spiegelgrund clinic, where many died or were killed, in line with Nazi euthanasia programs.
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“The truth deserves to be told,” Czech told Disability Scoop. “What certainly needs to be re-evaluated are the glorifying narratives and stories … that say he was the patron saint of autistic children. It’s simply not justified if we take a closer look.”
The information highlighted in Czech’s paper will likely cause an emotional reaction from some in the autism community, said Michael John Carley, an author and founder of the Global and Regional Asperger Syndrome Partnership, or GRASP, an organization for adults on the autism spectrum. Carley once had a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome but now has autism spectrum disorder. He said those who see Hans Asperger as “a very benevolent” person are “going to have a very, very tough time swallowing this news.”
However, because the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM, did away with the Asperger’s syndrome designation in 2013 in favor of autism spectrum disorder, Carley said the Asperger’s designation as a technical diagnosis is “not a word that is hanging over our heads.”
In a statement, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network called the news about Asperger “distressing to hear,” but said that “it doesn’t change who we are as autistic people, and it doesn’t change what autism is. How others perceive our disability absolutely affects our lives, but we define autism on our own terms.”
The editors of the journal in which the research was published said it was important to understand the full picture of Hans Asperger’s history. In an editorial, they wrote that Asperger had long been seen as only having made valuable contributions to pediatrics and child psychiatry, but that Czech’s new evidence shows he was “also guilty of actively assisting the Nazis in their abhorrent eugenics and euthanasia policies.”
The research published this week comes just as a book on the topic is set to be published in May. Author Edith Sheffer’s book “Asperger’s Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna” explores similar historical information about Asperger and his ties to the Nazi Party and euthanasia efforts.
Carley said he feels that those in the autism community are generally viewing the information unearthed by Czech and others thoughtfully. “A very large percentage of people on the spectrum understand that our sense of self-worth is not derived from a total stranger,” he said, “despite the fact that his name is associated” with the condition.