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Doctor Behind Asperger's Syndrome Subject To Name Change


Across the country, people have been grappling with how to acknowledge historical moments that are now understood as morally reprehensible. Recently, this has involved emotional debates about statues or names of streets, schools and other public buildings. And now that debate has moved to a medical diagnosis. Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism that was named after Hans Asperger, a doctor in Nazi Vienna. Although he had long been suspected of Nazi ties, Hans Asperger's real story was largely unknown until now. And that knowledge has sparked a debate over whether the diagnosis should be renamed. Historian Edith Sheffer tells the story in her new book, "Asperger's Children: The Origins Of Autism In Nazi Vienna." And our own Michel Martin spoke with her recently.

MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Professor Sheffer, thanks so much for speaking with us.

EDITH SHEFFER: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: So, first of all, please tell us about Hans Asperger, who he was and what his ties were to the Nazi Party's killing machine.

SHEFFER: Well, sure. Hans Asperger was a pediatrician who lived in Vienna in the 1930s and '40s. What's been grabbing the headlines and what my book reveals is his involvement in the child euthanasia program which was murdering children considered to be disabled. And Hans Asperger was not a major figure in this program, and that's why his past has not been uncovered until now. But he was involved in transferring children to Vienna's killing center at Spiegelgrund. And he can be linked to the deaths of dozens of children there.

MARTIN: What was his motivation?

SHEFFER: He was up for a promotion. He worked under an ardent Nazi who was the director of the University of Vienna Children's Hospital. and he was up for Assistant - Associate Professor in 1943. And he did prize the - what he called the special abilities of children that he diagnosed with autism. And he believed that they could be even superior to normal children - or typical children, I should say. At the same time, he had a very eugenicist view and believed that some children were not able to be remediated. And those were the severely-disabled children who were transferred to the killing center.

MARTIN: You are an expert in European history, and you said that, initially, you'd set out to write a heroic story given his image as having rescued children from Nazi murder and for developing the autism diagnosis to argue for their value to the Reich. But you said that the very first file you saw in the archives was enough to show that this wasn't true and that his definition of autism was shaped by Nazi ideology, and he was complicit in the regime's child euthanasia program. That must have been a shock.

SHEFFER: Oh, it was an incredible shock. I came to this research because my son was diagnosed with autism and Asperger's syndrome. That's one of the reasons it's so complicated because the diagnostic criteria are overlapping. And like any parent, I read what I could about the diagnosis. And the blurbs that I found in parent manuals or online or on his Wikipedia page, as you said, described him in these heroic terms. My very first file that I looked at in the archives, however, was his district Nazi Party file that was reporting on his political reliability. And there were about 20 documents, and they're commenting on his support for the regime's racial hygiene measures, for his support for sterilization policy, racial policy. There was a document written by an SS officer saying that while Asperger was in a position to expose activities that were happening, he chose not to. So really, from the very first file. And to me, it's very surprising that this history has not come out yet.

MARTIN: So why do you think it's important to change the name?

SHEFFER: There are a few reasons why I think we should get rid of the name. One has to do with medical ethics. Eponymous diagnoses are granted to honor individuals who are describing a condition for the first time and to commend their work as human beings. And in my opinion, Asperger merits neither. The second reason to rename the diagnosis is that it no longer exists as an official diagnosis according to the American Psychiatric Association. In 2013, it was reclassified as autism spectrum disorder. And so today, you can't receive a diagnosis of Asperger's syndrome in the United States. It remains an official diagnosis in other countries that go by the World Health Organization's standard, but even that is being reclassified because it's seen as indistinct from other criteria for autism.

MARTIN: That is Edith Sheffer. She has written a number of award-winning books about European history. Her latest is "Asperger's Children: The Origins Of Autism In Nazi Vienna." Professor Sheffer, thanks so much for speaking with us.

SHEFFER: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.