Part 104: Shaking Hans – The Asperger Sin

Hello, and welcome back to The Autistic Writer. It’s always great to have you here. Make yourself comfortable, and let’s have a nice friendly chat. I mean it. I want this nice and friendly. We might disagree with each other over some things, but that’s no reason to… you know… block each other on social media, or anything, is it? This week, I want to talk a little about Hans Asperger.

Many autistic people who received a diagnosis not too recently will have actually been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome. As you might well already know, Asperger Syndrome no longer exists as a standalone diagnosis, as it now falls under the Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis. But the term Asperger Syndrome has become rather problematic. Why? Well, it’s a hell of a mess. Before I go any further, let me take a small diversion. I’ve written previously about the problems with diagnosis of autism, and speculated about whether formal diagnosis is even valid, but I’m sidestepping that issue this week. For the sake of argument in this week’s blog, we’re just going to go with the concept of formal diagnosis as an actual thing that some autistic people receive. Okay, so let’s talk Asperger, and Asperger Syndrome…

Asperger Syndrome is named after Hans Asperger, an Austrian physician who was born in 1906 and died in 1980. He is often cited as one of the first people to systematically identify or study autism, which he actually termed autistic psychopathy. (It is now widely and correctly accepted that formal study of autism predated Asperger, with the work of Russian Grunya Sukhareva in 1925.) The term Asperger Syndrome was actually coined by a British psychiatrist, Lorna Wing in 1976. Asperger himself was almost unknown to the world at large at this stage, but that was to change dramatically after his death. Before we can really understand why Hans Asperger rose to posthumous infamy, we have to look at what Asperger Syndrome actually means. It’s relevant, so bear with me.

Before being combined into the diagnosis autism spectrum disorder, there were considered to be different types of autism. These were autism disorder (or “classic” autism), pervasive developmental disorder – not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), childhood disintegrative disorder, and Asperger syndrome. The defining difference of Asperger Syndrome was supposed to be unimpaired intelligence and language development. This artificial differentiation or subtyping of autism suffered from at least two problems, one being that in real autistic people (as opposed to in theory) autistic traits overlapped significantly across these boundaries, and another being that it led to harmful and misleading notions of “severity” of autism. This in turn led to a rather ridiculous Aspie Supremacy movement, in which a small number of misguided people diagnosed with Asperger syndrome claimed to be genetically superior, evolutionary improvements on humanity. Thankfully, this vile ideology is seriously on the wane, and much Aspie content on the internet these days is done with tongue firmly in cheek. But there was a dark side to Aspie supremacy, and it was directly linked to the revelations about Hans Asperger. You see, it turns out Hans Asperger was a Nazi collaborator. Or was he?

Depending on whose stories or evidence you believe, Asperger was either a hero who did his best to protect the autistic children he was studying from the depredations of the Nazis by working within their system, or he was a heartless collaborator who allowed disabled children to be sent to their deaths at the Am Spiegelgrund clinic in Vienna. Both sides cite evidence for their claims. Is there a way to cut through the anger and outrage to get at the truth of Hans Asperger’s relationship with Nazi Germany? We can try. Let’s start with some biographical detail that might actually dispel some myths.

Firstly, Asperger was not German. He was Austrian, and lived and worked in Austria. Born in 1906, he was still a child for the duration of the First World War. As a youth, he joined a Catholic organisation, a kind of Boy Scouts, which was ideologically linked to what is known as the German Youth Movement. He obtained a university degree in medicine, and went on to have a prestigious career, including becoming director of special education at the University of Vienna’s children’s clinic. He served in the Second World War as a medical officer. Decades later, Lorna Wing was to describe Asperger as a “deeply religious man,” when the controversy started to emerge.

Various allegations about Hans Asperger’s involvement with the Nazis have emerged, most notably from Herwig Czech and historian Edith Sheffer. While there had long been concern about Asperger’s possible complicity with the Nazi regime, the narrative most widely accepted was that Asperger had identified supposedly high-functioning autistic boys, who had skills that could be of use to the Nazis, while hiding and protecting supposedly low-functioning autistic boys from Nazi scrutiny. (I should note here that I use the terms high-functioning and low-functioning with caution; these two labels do not reflect the truth of autism, and I reject any notion they are valid – but nevertheless, this was the approach taken for a long time, and a myth that still persists; that some autistic people have a “mild” autism, and some a “severe” autism.) This cosy narrative was shattered when it emerged that Asperger had been involved in sending at least a small number of children to the Am Spiegelgrund clinic, where hundreds of sick and disabled children were murdered as part of the Nazi’s racial and social cleansing policy. Some people still defend Asperger, and insist he was an ally of autistic children. Others look at the investigations and evidence, and claim he was a willing Nazi collaborator. We live in an age of post-truth and deepfake, of radical skepticism and ideological gullibility, so it is unlikely the argument will ever be settled to everyone’s satisfaction by evidence alone. But perhaps we can extrapolate from context…

Following the end of the First World War, while Asperger was still a child, Austria began to gradually lurch towards fascism, accelerating in the early 1930s. The social environment in Austria was particularly anti-Jewish. Jewish people in professional positions, such as doctors, faced increasing pressures, and were either forced out of university positions, or left before they were pushed. Austria was annexed by Germany in 1938. By this time, the university at which Asperger worked was completely hostile to Jews. Asperger developed friendships and professional relationships with people who at a minimum could be described as Nazi sympathisers, but more realistically were willingly Nazi-compliant. This was the environment in which Hans Asperger’s career did not just progress, but positively flourished. It is this context that combines with the other hard evidence that makes the allegations concrete. It simply would not have been possible for Asperger to have had the career he did in Austria at that time without working as part of the system. As far as I am concerned, the jury is in, and the verdict is damning. The thought of autistic children who did not quite fit Asperger’s Nazi-acceptable profile of the little professors, being sent to their deaths at Am Spiegelgrund turns my stomach.

The Nazis were, of course, associated with the ideology of an Aryan super-race of genetically superior humans, so it can be seen why so many people in the autistic community were disturbed by the Aspie Supremacy movement. It is Asperger’s association with the Nazis that has led to many people wanting to completely do away with any reference to Asperger in relation to autism. As things have turned out, no one is going to be diagnosed with Asperger syndrome anymore; the diagnosis is no longer given. However, we cannot rewrite history. There are many autistic people who still have the historical Asperger syndrome diagnosis. When Lorna Wing first brought Asperger’s work on autism to public attention in the UK, she did not go into any detail at all about his association with the Nazis. As such, no stigma of that type was attached to the Asperger syndrome diagnosis. Many, many autistic people were given the Asperger syndrome diagnosis, accepted it, and continue to identify with that diagnostic term. For all I know, there may be any number of people diagnosed with Asperger syndrome who are still unaware of the controversy, and happily identify with the term. So it is with some concern that I see anger being directed at these people.

I was deeply upset to read opinions online that suggest continued use of the term Asperger syndrome “glorifies” Asperger and the Nazis, and reflects an “Aspie Supremacy ideology.” Anyone familiar with my views on autism will no doubt recognise my mantra that words have power. I firmly believe that the casual use of unhelpful language around autism feeds into the plethora of myths and stereotypes that underpin much of the discrimination facing autistic people. So I understand if someone thinks they’ve identified such deployment of language. However, it’s just not accurate or fair to claim this about the use of the term Asperger syndrome. I repeat – we cannot rewrite history, and we should not want to. The diagnosis Asperger syndrome was used, and still remains for those people so diagnosed. If they want to reject that diagnostic label, and just call themselves autistic, that’s fine and I wholly prefer and support it. Personally, my formal diagnosis was Autism Spectrum Disorder (formerly Asperger syndrome), but I identify as autistic. But I know from personal experience of talking to other autistic people that there are those who prefer to stick with the term on their formal diagnosis. This does not mean that they are Nazis, or racists, or anti-semitic. It just means they have become comfortable with a diagnostic term that Asperger himself did not even coin. To try to erase this would be to rewrite history. Another example of rewriting history would be to say Asperger was a good guy who did not collaborate with the Nazis… see how it works? We can’t do that.

By all means, we should ensure history records the evils of the past, in the hope that we never forget, and instead improve our society. So call out the historical Nazi collaborators, for sure. But do not blame an autistic person who might have had the Asperger syndrome diagnosis for many years, and have grown comfortable with it, for the evils of the man after whom it was named. If nothing else, the use of the term actually promotes the conversation of, “Did you know the man that was named after was a vile Nazi collaborator?”

Every day, I face into prejudice and discrimination that comes my way as an autistic person. I’m constantly reminded of the difficulties all autistic people face. Just today, I came across some distressing information about the plight of autistic children in my city of Sheffield, which I am not yet at liberty to share. This world is not good for us right now, and we autistic people need to pull together to support each other. To know that some autistic people are calling other autistic people Nazis and anti-semites because of a historic diagnosis they were once given breaks my heart. We can do better than this.

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That’s all for this week. Until next time, take care.


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Why Do I Write This Blog?

When I first found out I was autistic, I was a middle-aged adult and I knew nothing about autism.  I quickly learned that there was a serious shortage of information and resources for adults in my situation.  With this blog, I aim to inform about autism and autism-related issues as I learn, hopefully helping people who are on a similar journey of discovery.  Like anyone who writes a blog, I want to reach as many readers as possible; if you like what I’m doing, please share it with your friends and followers.  I will never hide this blog behind a paywall, but running the website does incur costs. If you would like to support, feel free to make a small contribution at BuyMeACoffee.Com.

You might also be interested in David Scothern’s blog, Mortgage Advisor on FIRE, which covers a range of topics including mental health issues and financial independence.

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