Autistic History: Hans Asperger


Johann Friedrick Karl Asperger (1906-1980) was born on February 18, 1906 in Hausbrunn,Vienna, Austria on a farm near Vienna. He was the oldest of three sons. Parents were Sophie and Johann Asperger. 

Hans parents were raised on a farm but Hans and his brothers were raised in the city of Vienna. His younger brother Karl had died during early childhood. 

In elementary school, Asperger studied language and regularly committed passages by Graz Grillpanzer to memory. Grillpanzer was the national poet of Austria in the 1920’s. Hans did have difficulty making friends and was considered a loner. 

During the 1920’s. Asperger joined a youth movement called Bund Neuland, which was established in Austria and Germany after World War I. This movement had outdoor activities and freedom of speech that was not possible in his social class at this time. It was much like the Boy Scouts. 

Asperger studied medicine at the University of Vienna under Franz Hamburger. He practiced at the University Children’s Hospital in Vienna. He earned his medical degree in 1931. He then became the director of special education section of the university children’s clinic in 1932. 

In March of 1938. Austria became part of the German Reich and the principles of National Socialism Eugenics were integrated into research and all levels of teaching. The National Socialism Eugenic principles included influence on spouse choice for marriage, forced sterilization for people with certain conditions, compulsorily abortions and euthanizing disabled people. 

In October of 1938, Asperger presented at the University Children’s Hospital. This lecture was called “Das Psych Abnormel Kind (The Mentally Abnormal Kind)”. In this lecture, he discussed developmentally disabled children that he worked with at the hospital. The lecture topic may have been interpreted as conflicting with the laws of National Socialism, he outlined characteristics of what he called autistic psychopaths. He empathized their benefit to the employment sector. This is where he introduced the term autistic psychopathy. This definition of the “mentally abnormal child” which was based on Eugen Bleuler’s definition from 1911. Bleuler was a psychiatrist from Switzerland and had used the term autism to describe “reclusive, self centered behavior of schizophrenia” patients. 1n 1938, this lecture was published in the Wiener Klinischen Wochenzeitschrift (Vienna Weekly Clinical Newspaper). 

In 1944, Asperger published his research paper “Die Austischen Psychopathen Im Kindersalter (Austistic Psychopathy in Childhood).” In this paper, Asperger described the children with creative intelligence who mastered speech but who were clumsy. This periodical discussed Asperger’s research on autistic psychopathy and presented many case studies of this condition. 

Role in the Nazi Regime

Asperger was an active participant in the Nazi regime. He assisted in the Third Reich’s euthanasia program (called T4) and supported the concept of racial hygiene by choosing children “unworthy of life.” Herwig Czech from the Vienna’s medical university, claimed in a paper published in an open access Journal called Molecular Autism. This was done following 8 years of research into Asperger. 

Yes he was a pioneer into the field of child psychiatry and pediatrics, especially for his understanding of autism,  but at what cost? 

By uncovering his untouched documents from state archives. This includes personnel files and case records. Czech revealed that aligned with Nazi values. He frequently referred children to the Am Speigelgrund clinic. This clinic was set up as a collection location for children who failed to conform to the regime’s criteria of “worthy of life.”

Almost 800 children died in the clinice between 1940 and 1945. Many were murdered under the euthanasia front.  He was part of a committee that reviewed cases of 200 children in a psychiatric hospital, calling 35 of them “uneducable” and “unemployable.” These words marked the children for euthanasia.

A joint statement by the editors of Molecular Autism, Simon Baron-Cohen, Ami Klin, Steve Silberman and Joseph Buxbaum, stated that they welcomed the fact that Czech’s “meticulous research” had finally shed light on decades of scepticism about Asperger’s claims that he had taken a caring approach to his patients. “The degree of Asperger’s involvement in the targeting of Vienna’s most vulnerable children has remained an open and vexing question in autism research for a long time.”

Among Czech’s findings was a photo of the distraught face of Herta Schreiber who suffered from encephalitis and died of pneumonia three months after being admitted to Speiglegrund on Asperger’s orders. This was one day after her third birthday.  Asperger ordered her transfer because “she must be an unbearable burden to her mother” and she was pronounced incurable. There was a specimen of Herta’s brain found in a specimen jar in the basement of the clinic in the late 1990’s. It was buried in 2002, according to Czech.

There was no evidence uncovered that he purposely targeted patients with specific psychological characteristics, he called “autistic psychopaths” for euthanasia. His diagnoses proved to be burdensome for many of his patients, even after the Nazi Regime collapsed.

There was also no evidence of a positive attitude towards his patients that Asperger and others bragged about. Czech found a lack of evidence of Asperger’s self coined term “pedagogic optimism,” according to to some people, could be treated or cured.

Asperger took a lot of pride in “Heilpädagogik” – therapeutic pedagogy. This promoted the idea that certain autistic people made excellent soldiers and reliable workers. Asperger also wrote about the need to “carry out restrictive measures” against patients deemed incurable and with hereditary conditions “out of sense of greater responsibility” towards the Aryan race. 

“In short, he was responsible for depriving their liberty many children who he deemed incapable of existing outside of institutions,” stated Czech. 

Asperger was promoted to the highest position in the expanding field of therapeutic pedagogy. He adapted it to suit Nazi ideology and promoted over the the heads of his Jewish colleagues who were forced out of the profession. 

In Czech’s 43 page paper, he was very critical of authors in the English speaking territories, who he accused, over decades of perpetuating a “predominantly apologetic narrative” of Asperger. This was “based on the limited range of sources available to them.”
He also criticized Uta Frith, who is considered the UK’s leading autism experts, by saying that she had barely mentioned Nazism in her 1991 book “Asperger and his Syndrome.” Czech believed that this was instrumental in establishing the common view that Asperger had “defended his patients against the Nazi regime at great personal risk.” It was found to be quite the opposite.
Czech also listed some examples of how Asperger deemed sexually abused children to be responsible for the abuse and cites how anti semitic stereotypes worked their way into his reports.
“Asperger refused to acknowledge the reality of anti-Jewish persecution by the Nazis. This indifference was visible both during and after the war,” said Czech. “It would have been wron gfor me to have withheld this information, however how difficult it might be to hear it. At the same time, there is no evidence to show his contributions to autism research were tainted by his problematic role during National Socialism.”

After the War

After World War II ended, in 1946 Asperger was the interim chair of the University Children’s Hospital. In 1948, Asperger co founded Österreichische Arbeitsgemeinschaft für Heilpädagogik (Austrian Association of Special Pedagogy). It is an organization focusing on interdisciplinary research, training and networking for special pedagogy. 

In 1952, Asperger published his book called Heilpädagogik. Einführung in die Psychopathologie des Kindes für Ärzte, Lehrer, Psychologen, Richter und Fürsorgerinnen (Special Pedagogy. Introduction to the Psychopathology of the Child for Doctors, Teachers, Psychologists, Judges, and Social Workers). The book describes the psychopathology of children and explains autistic psychopaths as it is discussed in his 1944 article. 

1957, Asperger was an associate professor of pediatrics and the University Children’s Hospital in Innsbruck, Austria. In 1962, he returned to Vienna for a similar position at the University Children’s Hospital there. After one year, Asperger founded the therapeutic healing department of the SOS- Children’s Villages in Hinterbrühl, Austria. The following year he was president of the International Society of Special Pedagogy. 
In 1977, Asperger retired from the University Children’s Hospital. He did continue to lecture. He died 6 days after his last lecture on October 21, 1980. He was 75 years old. 

Most of his of his publications were internationally unnoticed for several decades. During the late 20th century, his work received worldwide attention. In 1981 Lorna Wing, a British psychiatrist, introduced the term Asperger’s syndrome to replace the term autistic psychopathy. 

Uta Frith translated Asperger’s article Die Autistischen Psychopathen im Kindesalter (Autistic Psychopathy in Childhood) in 1991. This led to international recognition of his work. In 1992, the World Health Organization characterized Asperger’s syndrome as a developmental disorder in the 10th edition of the INternational Classification of Disease (ICD). 

“In light of this research, we should no longer use the term Asperger syndrome,” Edith Sheffer told Live Science in an email. “In medicine, eponymous diagnoses are granted to recognize individuals who first defined a condition as well as to honor their life. In my opinion, Asperger meets neither criterion.” Sheffer was a senior fellow at the Institute of European Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She wrote the book “Asperger’s children: The Origin of Autism in Nazi Vienna.”

In 1994, the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) from the American Psychiatric Association included Asperger’s syndrome. In the 5th edition included a new condition called autism spectrum disorder which eliminated the asperger’s diagnosis.


2 thoughts on “Autistic History: Hans Asperger

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