After the revelations about Hans Asperger, let’s change how we talk about autism

The problem with your diagnosis being named after someone with a Nazi past. 

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It has recently emerged that Hans Asperger, the Austrian doctor who has given his name to the syndrome bearing his name, helped the Nazi regime carry out its first euthanasia programme, Aktion T-4, in which disabled children were lethally injected or starved to death. The revelation, published in the academic journal Molecular Autism, is based on research by Dr Herwig Czech, who studied previously neglected documents from the Third Reich archives. Czech also criticised his peers in the English-speaking world, who he accused of skimming over Asperger’s connection with the Nazi regime. 

Back in 2002, I was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, which is a form of mild (or high-functioning) autism. The term itself was in fact relatively recent, having been coined by Dr Lorna Wing in the early 1980s (she also introduced the English-speaking world to the work of Asperger and proposed the idea of an autism spectrum).  

The Aktion T-4 programme began in Germany, but spread to Austria after the country was annexed by Hitler in 1938. That Asperger, a Vienna-based paediatrician, operated under the Nazi regime is well documented in Steve Silberman's book, Neurotribes. Since 80 per cent of the medical faculty were expelled for being Jewish, Asperger enjoyed a rapid rise. However, while Silberman portrayed Asperger as compromised, he also argued that the doctor managed to save autistic children from extermination.

According to the research by Dr Czech, however, Asperger appears to have wielded significant control over who could be “euthanised” and who might be allowed to survive. He actively referred children to a centre where they were likely to be murdered. 

Asperger did believe that some people with autism had real strengths. He was one of the first to pinpoint that high-functioning people with autism have unusual capacities, like knowing every tram route in Vienna, or doing chemistry experiments at home. These eccentric or singular passions are something quite common for people with high-functioning autism – myself included. I love transport timetables and television listing magazines. At the age of seven, I was able to guide my parents through New York City thanks to the books I'd read on the subject. Yet many people who were proud to be “Aspies” will now perhaps think twice about being associated with Asperger Syndrome.

In fact, there is already a shift towards considering Asperger Syndrome under the bigger umbrella of “autism”. In 2013, the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders recommended that those diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome should be re-diagnosed as having autism spectrum disorder. 

Perhaps “Aspies” will find another name to describe their condition – or perhaps for the time being they will stay under the huge autistic umbrella. As for me, I will probably stay on the autistic spectrum. The condition is one where everyone has different tastes and capacities – better to join a lot of people and not just a few.