Hans Asperger, an Austrian doctor, who did groundbreaking research in the developmental disorder autism, and also had the disease Asperger’s syndrome named after him, had a “heroic” reputation for his contributions until now. However, new research by historians has revealed that the doctor was involved in a Nazi program, and was responsible for killing disabled children.
The details about his involvement have been written about in a soon-to-be-released book, Asperger’s Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna. The information in the book explains how Asperger referred many children to a Viennese clinic called Am Spiegelgrund. They were either experimented upon by the doctors, or killed. Almost 800 children were killed in this clinic.
Edith Sheffer, a historian and a senior fellow at the University of California, visited government archives in Vienna, where she found the medical files which had records of these horrific details. Sheffer said, “From the very first file I found in the archives, I saw that he was implicated in the Nazi program that actually killed disabled children.”
The language Asperger used in his clinical files to describe the mentally and physically disabled children reflects his attitude towards them. One particular boy, Leo, was described by Asperger’s colleague as “very well developed in every respect.” However, Asperger wrote in his file that Leo was a “very difficult, psychopathic boy of a kind which is not frequent among small children.” As the Nazi regime progressed, Asperger got more and more critical in his descriptions. By the year 1944, he considered these children outside “the greater organism” of the Nazi vision.
The shift in Asperger’s terminology is in tandem with the rise and fall of the Nazi rule. Prior to the Second World War, his language was not as condemnable. According to Sheffer, it is possible that Asperger wrote the way he did because he was in line for a promotion.
Following these damning revelations, many experts have furthered a demand to drop the usage of the word ‘Asperger’ from the name Asperger’s syndrome. In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the name Asperger syndrome had already been removed earlier for other reasons. These findings could result in the disappearance of the term from common parlance as well.
However, there are some, who believe that the name should not be changed. Herwig Czech, medical historian at the Medical University of Vienna said, “I don’t think erasing history is an answer. I think we also have to part ways with the idea that an eponym is an unmitigated honor of the person. It is simply a historical acknowledgment that can be, in some cases, troubling or problematic.”