...as Edith Sheffer, an American historian who happens to have an autistic son, now sets out with impeccable research, Asperger, far from being a great man, knowingly participated in the pseudo-medical eugenics programme that murdered disabled children in Nazi-controlled Vienna ... Sheffer’s Asperger’s Children...is the first book to dig into the depths of his complicity — and to explain how his political and medical opinions combined to produce such a depraved outcome ... For this reader, the father of a 22-year-old with Down’s syndrome, the most distressing passages in Sheffer’s book are the description of the fate of children with this condition, roughly 10% of those done away with in Spiegelgrund’s Pavilion 15 ... As Sheffer suggests at the end of her searing, wonderfully written book, the least that can be done to honour the memory of those children killed in his name is to excise it from popular use.
Historian Edith Sheffer's intensely fascinating new book, Asperger's Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna, turns the focus onto Hans Asperger himself in a clearly landmark English-language biography. Sheffer prodigiously researches the shape of Asperger's mind and career as it appears in historical records ... Sheffer brings to this typical picture exactly the kind of calm deliberation that does it the most justice; she's aware throughout of the personal variables involved ... The book sketches in Asperger's life in swift, evocative installments that bring him rapidly to the ideological crucible of his life ... Sheffer does a quietly excellent job of capturing the criminal schizophrenia that infused the thinking of Asperger's Nazi peers and Asperger himself ... It's unnerving, necessary reading.
She is at her best when she unpacks how the Third Reich created what she calls a 'diagnosis regime' by labeling anyone who disagreed in any way with Nazi aims, achievements, or ideology as being fundamentally ill ... Sheffer’s account of the 'program of systematic child killing' that grew out of this mind-set is chilling ... Sheffer’s pivot from describing deadly Nazi conceptions of community to Asperger’s complicity with the Reich’s killing machine is less effective ... a more nuanced approach would have further examined the other, conflicting evidence that Asperger was able to save the lives of some disabled children who had been marked for death. It is this evidence, after all, that was pointed to when Asperger was hailed as a hero ... Sheffer is a careful and nuanced researcher, which made her clumsy effort to 'destabilize' our notions of autism feel all the more out of place ... I wish Sheffer had trusted her readers enough to let us know about her personal connection to this story at the outset of her book instead of inserting it as a concluding aside, where it became an unsettling coda to her ardent effort to undermine our notions of autism and its origins.
By putting Hans Asperger’s career in Nazi Vienna under an unfavorable new lens, historian Edith Sheffer’s riveting and often devastating book, Asperger’s Children, may well accomplish what Asperger’s exile from the DSM failed to. Readers are likely to conclude that the stigma lies not with the diagnosis, but with its namesake ... Sheffer’s approach is dispassionate (necessarily, one feels), but the individual cases she describes are vivid, wrenching and make for difficult reading ... The question of complicity—a term much discussed lately, albeit for different reasons—is very much the subtext of Sheffer’s book. And it is her intelligent, measured exploration of its nuances that makes Asperger’s Children transcend the specificity of its subject matter.
...a superbly researched account ... a long-overdue and gripping analysis of Asperger’s own writing before, during and after the Third Reich. She details his wartime denigration of the cognitively and physically disabled children in his care. She frames him as complicit in 'negative eugenics' and a careerist ... It’s hard to believe that anyone will want to identify with Asperger syndrome after reading Sheffer’s extremely disturbing but very lucid book, but what should replace it? Wing syndrome, perhaps. Certainly it would honor a doctor who cared for all autistic people and worked tirelessly to make their lives better.
Sheffer, a historian at UC Berkeley, isn’t the first to probe the past of the man whose name has become a popular psychiatric label ... As Sheffer digs deep into the broader 'child killing' context in which he prospered, the dark verdicts blur ... 'The child euthanasia program,' Sheffer writes chillingly, 'reveals an intimate dimension to extermination.'
... fascinating and disturbing ... An impressive piece of historical detective work, [Asperger’s Children] deserves a wide readership ... Sheffer’s meticulous archival research into Asperger’s writings and professional activities has brought to light an entirely different facet of the man [than the benevolent image constructed] ... Despite the fragmentary nature of the surviving records, Sheffer is able to document not one but dozens of such cases [of brutality].
Rooted in years of meticulous archival research, Sheffer’s book has already had an impact on activists who have called for the burial of Asperger’s syndrome along with statues honouring racists. But that’s too easy. Her book does not offer a univocal message. It explores the various ways in which, over time, cultural ideals shape ‘scientific’ diagnoses, and vice versa. It’s about the way words like Gemüt create models, and the way these models help create ‘defects’. It’s about conscious and unconscious complicity, in-the-moment improvisation, and the moral grey areas where so much human action takes place.
Hers is an impassioned indictment, one that glows with the heat of a prosecution motivated by an ethical imperative. She charges [Viennese pediatrician Hans] Asperger with a heinous medical crime: sending at least thirty-seven of his child patients to their deaths ... it is clear from the archival evidence Sheffer expertly amasses that he knew he was signing off on children’s fates. Crucially, too, his notions of what constituted 'autistic psychopathy' in childhood, which he described most fully in his 1944 treatise of the same name, were deeply influenced by Nazi ideology ... Sheffer dramatically incorporates the voices of the few children who survived the sadistic terrors of the psychiatric regime into her account, as well as extant case notes. This makes for an anguishing text ... If I have one cavil with this impassioned book it is that Sheffer, in making her case against Asperger and Nazi mental health policy, perhaps too readily and speedily folds the enthusiastic and necessary reforms of the 1920s welfare state—with its far-reaching hopes of improvement for an impoverished class and hapless children—into the vicious Nazi state.
The author examines Asperger’s writings and his career after the war, when he claimed that he was a resister of Nazism. She reports that he has been viewed in various ways: as 'a resister who rescued children, as a determined perpetrator, or as a passive follower.' Her own conclusion—that he was a conscious participant—is persuasive. A compelling picture of the evils of the Nazi regime and of the perversion of Nazi psychiatry.