It has been rumoured that Hans Asperger, the Austrian doctor whose name now adorns a particular type of autism, was a Nazi collaborator for a long time now. This is of no surprise, given the fact that he worked in Nazi-occupied Vienna after a stint in the army as a medical officer. From 1944 he worked with autistic children and did his ground-breaking work on the nature of the condition and the particular profile that came to be known as Asperger’s. Anyone working in the Gestapo-haunted hospitals of the 3rd Reich, rife with euthanasia rules and laws designed to ‘perfect’ the Germanic peoples is bound to come under suspicion in retrospect, and indeed recent months have seen an increase in the number of articles and stories about the doctor, all increasingly pointing to the grim probability that he did collaborate in full with the Nazis.
On 19 April 2018 the media published details from some new research by Herwig Czech of Vienna’s Medical University, which seems to have proven that Asperger was not the Oskar Schindler of the psychiatric wards, as he so often presented himself. It seems he regularly referred children to the notorious Am Spiegelgrund clinic, also in Vienna, where the ‘Child Euthanasia Programme’ was carried out, killing 789 children deemed to be too disabled to be allowed to live. None of these children were autistic, as far as we can tell, but that is cold comfort – Asperger seems to have been totally complicit in the Nazi’s plans to eradicate any kind of severe mental or physical disability from their population.
It may seem a little indulgent to worry about such things, especially considering that his work into Autism was at least partly beneficial compared to this much darker work, but as someone recently diagnosed as having ‘Asperger’s Syndrome’ I can’t help but reflect on the suitability of the term. Asperger’s is controversial enough, of course – it is no longer even diagnosed in the US, where it is now seen as simply a type of autism rather than an independent condition – but it tends to be quite a popular word in some segments of the autistic community and beyond, with the playful derivation ‘Aspie’ enjoying a considerable vogue among some people on the spectrum. How acceptable is this word considering our new understanding of the man himself?
Eponyms like Asperger’s are often based on folk with a murky history, I suppose. We all know that a quisling is a turncoat or traitor, based on Vidkun Quisling, the Norwegian Nazi collaborator, but you don’t get groups of people celebrating their labelling as ‘quislings’ in quite the same way. Similarly, the fictional Baron Munchausen may be a lying braggart and no hero, but it’s not as if sufferers of Munchausen’s cheerful refer to themselves as Munchies or anything similar. So Asperger’s seems to be in an interesting place currently. I’m not sure that the term ‘Aspie’ can sustain itself with such close association with a Nazi who condemned innocent children to death, so perhaps now is the time to drop the term and the diagnosis worldwide – lose Asperger’s as a concept and, like the Americans, maintain it is simply an aspect of autism. This would not be as huge an issue as you may expect. A lot of autistic people find their diagnosis of Asperger’s to be something of a curse, as it carries unfortunate implications of being precocious or a savant, or even a genius when this is overwhelmingly not the case for most! Similarly, its links with the concept of the ‘high functioning autism’ is extremely controversial at present, with many labelled as such resenting the implication that they are always functioning well, when the reality is that they can spend days and weeks in extreme dysfunction (and I include myself in this category).
This final nail in the coffin for Dr. Asperger’s reputation may well be the right moment to consign the term to the annals of history as we move forward and develop our understanding of autism as a whole.