Viewpoint: Time to reassess Nazi Hans Asperger’s role in study of autism

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Hans Asperger. Image credit: The Famous People

I have spent the past seven years researching the Nazi past of Dr. Hans Asperger. Asperger is credited with shaping our ideas of autism and Asperger syndrome, diagnoses given to people believed to have limited social skills and narrow interests.

Most of us never think about the man behind the name. But we should.

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Asperger at first warned against classifying children, writing in 1937 that “it is impossible to establish a rigid set of criteria for a diagnosis.” But right after the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938 — and the purge of his Jewish and liberal associates from the University of Vienna — Asperger introduced his own diagnosis of social detachment: “autistic psychopathy.”

As Asperger sought promotion to associate professor, his writings about the diagnosis grew harsher. He stressed the “cruelty” and “sadistic traits” of the children he studied, itemizing their “autistic acts of malice.” He also called autistic psychopaths “intelligent automata.”

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Words such as these could be a death sentence in the Third Reich. And in fact, dozens of children whom Asperger evaluated were killed.

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Does the man behind the name matter? To medical ethics, it does. Naming a disorder after someone is meant to credit and commend, and Asperger merited neither. His definition of “autistic psychopaths” is antithetical to understandings of autism today, and he sent dozens of children to their deaths.

Editor’s note: Edith Sheffer is a senior fellow at the Institute of European Studies at the University of California, Berkeley

Read full, original post: The Nazi History Behind ‘Asperger’

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