Asperger’s Syndrome has not been an official diagnosis since the DSM-V came out in 2013, but I am still frequently asked why I am not diagnosed with Asperger’s.
Asperger’s syndrome was first added to the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) in 1994. At that time, Asperger’s was diagnosed in individuals with difficulties in social interaction/communication who also had deep and narrow interests with at least an average IQ.
This new diagnosis was largely born in response to the book Autism and Asperger Syndrome. Published in 1991 by Uta Frith, a developmental psychologist, the book was the first English translation of Hans Asperger’s 1944 treatise in which he claims to have discovered autism.
Eventually, other researchers began looking into Hans Asperger and what they found was shocking and heartbreaking.
Edith Sheffer, a historian, revealed Hans Asperger’s ties to Nazism. She goes in-depth with her research in her book, Asperger’s Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna. I can’t fit all of the chilling facts in a blog post, but I’m sure if you even know the most minimal amount of information about Nazi Germany, you can guess where this is going.
Nazis were eugenicists. For those not familiar with the term, eugenics is “the practice or advocacy of controlled selective breeding of human populations to improve the population’s genetic composition”. This line of thinking is what ultimately led to the Holocaust and the extermination of millions of people. This group included 6+ million Jewish victims, but it also included nearly half a million non-Jewish victims. These non-Jewish victims included people who were homosexual, black, Christian, and of Roma descent. They also included today’s focus: the disabled.
Few aspects of German society escaped Hitler’s cruel reach and psychiatry was no exception. Under Hitler’s leadership, German psychiatry morphed from an empathetic practice to a way of determining who should live and who should die. Because of this, German psychiatrists became the deciders of life and death for their patients. They were no different than the soliders who pointed left and right at a line of prisoners, determing who would be tortured in a concentration camp and who would suffocate in a gas chamber.
It’s vital to understand this historical context because this was the world in which Asperger’s syndrome was born. People often quote Asperger calling his autistic patients his “little professors”. They forget he also called them “inherently sadistic, malicious, and psychopathic.” Yes, Asperger recognized that there could be benefits to autism (or what he termed Asperger’s Syndrome), but this belief stemmed from what these children could do for Nazi Germany. Their lives were only spared so that their strengths could be manipulated and abused into furthering Hitler’s cause.
Not all autistics were deemed worthy of life either. If Asperger deemed that a child was not useful enough, he sent them to Am Spielgrund, a “children’s clinic”, where they would often be experimented on before being murdered by fatal injection, disease, and/or neglect. And he did this knowing what would happen to them. How can you look into the eyes of a child and sign their death warrant?
So no, I will never tell people I have Asperger’s or that I’m an “aspie”. And quite frankly, I would recommend that other autistic people also refrain from doing so. I don’t ever want to be associated with a man who was capable of doing the things that Hans Asperger did. I think when we, as autistic people, as families and friends of autistic people, continue using these words, we do a disservice to the memory of the children who perished.
On top of the ethical implications of Asperger’s Syndrome, I am also glad it has been retired from the DSM because I don’t believe in the need to label autistics on our “functioning”, something I hope to address further in a different blog post. No one is “a little bit autistic”. You are either autistic or not. The autism spectrum is so wide, trying to categorize it in this way (especially when the categories often have more to do with co-occuring conditions than autism itself) is pointless. But it can also be dangerous, as Hans Asperger has made abundantly clear.