cover image Asperger’s Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna

Asperger’s Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna

Edith Sheffer. Norton, $27.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-393-60964-6

Historian Sheffer (Burned Bridge: How East and West Germans Made the Iron Curtain) examines the confounding legacy of Austrian psychiatrist Hans Asperger, who worked with autistic children during the 1930s and ’40s, unveiling a figure who initially offered benevolent support to some autistic children, but then death to others. In 1937, Asperger advocated a nonjudgmental approach toward children’s differences; a year later, following the Nazi annexation of Austria, he publicly recommended “the overhaul of medicine according to guiding principles of National Socialism”—with its emphases on group assimilation and physical perfection as determinants of whether people deserved to live or die—and introduced his concept of “autistic psychopathy,” which forms the basis of the present-day diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. Asperger was likely involved in sending 44 children to the Vienna Municipal Youth Welfare Institution at Spiegelgrund, where at least 789 children died, inhumane neglect and brutal punishments were daily rituals, and euthanasia was considered a treatment. “Evil [was] just a part of life” there, one survivor later wrote; “it was everyday life, and nobody questioned it.” At the end of the war, Asperger was cleared of wrongdoing and even described his war service as somewhat heroic; he continued an illustrious career in child psychiatry. This is a revelatory, haunting biography of a gifted practitioner who chose to fall in line with the Nazi regime and the far-reaching consequences of that choice, for his own patients and for those still using and being labeled with the diagnostic concepts he originated. (May)