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Asperger's Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna

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Hans Asperger, the pioneer of autism and Asperger syndrome in Nazi Vienna, has been celebrated for his compassionate defense of children with disabilities. But in this groundbreaking book, prize-winning historian Edith Sheffer exposes that Asperger was not only involved in the racial policies of Hitler’s Third Reich, he was complicit in the murder of children. As the Nazi r Hans Asperger, the pioneer of autism and Asperger syndrome in Nazi Vienna, has been celebrated for his compassionate defense of children with disabilities. But in this groundbreaking book, prize-winning historian Edith Sheffer exposes that Asperger was not only involved in the racial policies of Hitler’s Third Reich, he was complicit in the murder of children. As the Nazi regime slaughtered millions across Europe during World War Two, it sorted people according to race, religion, behavior, and physical condition for either treatment or elimination. Nazi psychiatrists targeted children with different kinds of minds—especially those thought to lack social skills—claiming the Reich had no place for them. Asperger and his colleagues endeavored to mold certain "autistic" children into productive citizens, while transferring others they deemed untreatable to Spiegelgrund, one of the Reich’s deadliest child-killing centers. In the first comprehensive history of the links between autism and Nazism, Sheffer uncovers how a diagnosis common today emerged from the atrocities of the Third Reich. With vivid storytelling and wide-ranging research, Asperger’s Children will move readers to rethink how societies assess, label, and treat those diagnosed with disabilities.


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Hans Asperger, the pioneer of autism and Asperger syndrome in Nazi Vienna, has been celebrated for his compassionate defense of children with disabilities. But in this groundbreaking book, prize-winning historian Edith Sheffer exposes that Asperger was not only involved in the racial policies of Hitler’s Third Reich, he was complicit in the murder of children. As the Nazi r Hans Asperger, the pioneer of autism and Asperger syndrome in Nazi Vienna, has been celebrated for his compassionate defense of children with disabilities. But in this groundbreaking book, prize-winning historian Edith Sheffer exposes that Asperger was not only involved in the racial policies of Hitler’s Third Reich, he was complicit in the murder of children. As the Nazi regime slaughtered millions across Europe during World War Two, it sorted people according to race, religion, behavior, and physical condition for either treatment or elimination. Nazi psychiatrists targeted children with different kinds of minds—especially those thought to lack social skills—claiming the Reich had no place for them. Asperger and his colleagues endeavored to mold certain "autistic" children into productive citizens, while transferring others they deemed untreatable to Spiegelgrund, one of the Reich’s deadliest child-killing centers. In the first comprehensive history of the links between autism and Nazism, Sheffer uncovers how a diagnosis common today emerged from the atrocities of the Third Reich. With vivid storytelling and wide-ranging research, Asperger’s Children will move readers to rethink how societies assess, label, and treat those diagnosed with disabilities.

30 review for Asperger's Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna

  1. 4 out of 5

    Jaime

    This book was extremely hard to get through, but well worth it. The brutality of the Nazi regime has been well-documented, but this was especially hard to read. I found it interesting, especially in light of the current administration and the creeping rise of fascism. It was disconcerting to see how intertwined fascism was with medicine and psychiatry - and how autism and Asperger’s work was so tied into and related to the Nazi ideals. I have a lot of thoughts on this book, and I’m still working This book was extremely hard to get through, but well worth it. The brutality of the Nazi regime has been well-documented, but this was especially hard to read. I found it interesting, especially in light of the current administration and the creeping rise of fascism. It was disconcerting to see how intertwined fascism was with medicine and psychiatry - and how autism and Asperger’s work was so tied into and related to the Nazi ideals. I have a lot of thoughts on this book, and I’m still working through my reaction. Well-researched, and there’s a lot more still to examine with this topic.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Sandra

    That hurt.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Michelle Hopkins

    Stop BEFORE you attach a label of autism or Asperger's Syndrome to a child -- yours or anyone else's -- and READ this book. This is one of the most important books I have read in years in how it gives context and meaning to a concept society has accepted as fact. When you read the roots and evolution of this "diagnosis" ("autistic"), your heart will break, your anger will rise and you will be shocked at the flimsy and scant research on which it is based. The diagnosis has roots in the Nazi "raci Stop BEFORE you attach a label of autism or Asperger's Syndrome to a child -- yours or anyone else's -- and READ this book. This is one of the most important books I have read in years in how it gives context and meaning to a concept society has accepted as fact. When you read the roots and evolution of this "diagnosis" ("autistic"), your heart will break, your anger will rise and you will be shocked at the flimsy and scant research on which it is based. The diagnosis has roots in the Nazi "racial purity" movement, which had its own reasons for promoting Gemut, that is, the collective soul within the individual, and exterminating innocent children who could not be indoctrinated into Nazi concepts of "society" or who operated just a bit differently. Lorna Wing, who took Hans Asperger's ideas and popularized them, says: "I wish I hadn't done it. I would rather throw all labels away today and move toward the dimensional approach (observing children on their own unique merits)." It is time to stop misunderstanding and ostracizing individuals who don't immerse in large societal groups in the same fashion. This book's brilliant author Edith Sheffer concludes: "Society is becoming increasingly sensitive to nuance in issues of race, religion, gender, sexuality and nationality. As appreciation of neurodiversity now grows, we might begin to see the perils of a totalizing label based on varying traits, since labels affect the treatment of individuals, and treatment affects their lives. The history of Asperger's and autism should underscore the ethics of respecting every child's mind and treating those minds with care -- showing how society can shape a diagnosis." I couldn't agree more. Please read this book. I recommend having a light biography or novel nearby to alternate with reading "Asperger's Children" because learning what Nazi Vienna did to these children is just too disturbing to absorb without some sort of distraction.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Pam Cipkowski

    The inclusion of Asperger syndrome on the autism spectrum in the 1990s gave hope to many individuals and their loved ones who struggled to make sense of their unique personality and behavioral characteristics. Little has been made, though, of the circumstances by which Asperger’s was brought to light, and its relation to Nazi eugenics. This exhaustively and meticulously researched volume, though, tells the fascinating and chilling story of the Nazi cleansing of the population of “undesirables,” The inclusion of Asperger syndrome on the autism spectrum in the 1990s gave hope to many individuals and their loved ones who struggled to make sense of their unique personality and behavioral characteristics. Little has been made, though, of the circumstances by which Asperger’s was brought to light, and its relation to Nazi eugenics. This exhaustively and meticulously researched volume, though, tells the fascinating and chilling story of the Nazi cleansing of the population of “undesirables,” those whose sicknesses, deformities, and mental defects made them a liability to Hitler’s notion of a perfect Aryan society. This included the systematic killing of children, under the auspices of euthanasia and questionable treatment programs. Hans Asperger was part of this regime of doctors and psychologists who were complicit in the murder of children at institutions throughout German occupied territory. Sheffer’s book sheds light not only on Asperger’s role in these horrifying Nazi atrocities, but she also paints a backdrop of the dawning of Nazi eugenics in Austria’s famed medical societies and institutions, and goes into the aftermath of the war, with information on both the perpetrators and survivors. The discussion throughout of the concept of Gemüt, a German term which connotes a feeling of and fervent enthusiasm for the success of the community or the state as a whole, was very interesting, and drew parallels for me to the nationalistic, populist fervor that is being drummed up in some areas of politics today. The purging of intellectuals from institutions and appointing those with a lack of scientific achievement to high positions also draws disturbing parallels to the state of politics today. I saw some reviews that felt the book was too scholarly in tone, but I found it highly readable. Definitely the best read of the year for me.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Sharon

    Heavier read than expected as for me as it seemed closer to a textbook resource than a general audience book. Very detailed history of the subject which does provide a strong retrospective thought process for the reader of how individuals with disabilities have been treated and current direction of supports and services. My thanks to goodreads and the book's sponsors for the opportunity to read this book and extend my knowledge of the history of the subject covered.

  6. 5 out of 5

    SibylM

    3.5 stars.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Caroline

    Eye opening book on the history of Dr. Asperger in Nazi Vienna. Disturbing treatment of children and evils of euthanasia. The Autism and Aspergers spectrum was a death sentence. Author reveals so much about how the doctors had no real compassion for children who didn't fit the perfect citizen. Disturbing to know this is where these labels originated from. Won book from Goodreads and Edith Sheffer, thank you!

  8. 5 out of 5

    FM

    I made myself read this book is the same way I made myself sit through the movie "The Killing Fields": because it's an important story and we should not forget. I honestly had to keep closing this book and walking away from it. It was so very painful to read. There are stories in there that will haunt me. There was one story in particular about a little boy who was blind and had other disabilities whose mother sent loving notes to the facility about how to care for him all while they were deliber I made myself read this book is the same way I made myself sit through the movie "The Killing Fields": because it's an important story and we should not forget. I honestly had to keep closing this book and walking away from it. It was so very painful to read. There are stories in there that will haunt me. There was one story in particular about a little boy who was blind and had other disabilities whose mother sent loving notes to the facility about how to care for him all while they were deliberately hastening his death . . . I was reading it in an airport and had to put it down to keep from crying. The book reminds us that's so easy to dehumanize people, to think of people as "the other" and somehow not "good enough" because of some difference they have: disability, culture, language, religion, skin color, gender, whatever. The justifications that the Nazis used to murder people were couched in scientific language but were simply excuses to murder and destroy. Please, please, let's not forget this again.

  9. 4 out of 5

    S.D. Curran

    A detailed look at a genocide enabler I am fascinated by the mind and history, so this book carefully blended both. The rise of autism as a diagnosis has its roots in the interwar period, and Asperger, who initially resisted the diagnosing of children, didn’t just ‘happen to get involved,’ as some might think, but was clearly involved in one of the biggest examples of genocide and eugenics this planet has ever seen. Following Asperger’s roots in Austria, this book provides evidence that Asperger A detailed look at a genocide enabler I am fascinated by the mind and history, so this book carefully blended both. The rise of autism as a diagnosis has its roots in the interwar period, and Asperger, who initially resisted the diagnosing of children, didn’t just ‘happen to get involved,’ as some might think, but was clearly involved in one of the biggest examples of genocide and eugenics this planet has ever seen. Following Asperger’s roots in Austria, this book provides evidence that Asperger knew his recommendations to send children and teens to certain institutions was effectively signing a death warrant. While Asperger never formally joined the Nazi party and remained a committed Catholic, from his vantage point in Austria, he could clearly see the direction his field, as well as his country, was heading. Even in the mid-thirties, he watched as his Jewish colleagues disappeared from the field of psychology, without asking questions or doing anything to stop it. The end result is a man who started making compromises to advance his career in his youth and wound up being involved in some of the most barbaric and inhumane experiments in all history. One of his colleagues contributed much to today’s field of psychology - using brains from numerous dead children he’d let die in institutions decades before - preserved in pickle jars in the basement of his home. A fascinating read that shows how we are always one or two compromising decisions away from being involved in terrible injustices wrought upon mankind. - Sedgy

  10. 4 out of 5

    Wayne Stakem

    Everyone interested in learning about autism should read this book. You will gain valuable insight into the origins of the "autism disorders” in an intolerant society obsessed with social control. Unrelated to the book: Autism spectrum disorders were conjured up to label individuals who exhibit specific characteristic combinations of commonly concurrent behaviors, traits, or other attributes which are deemed socially undesirable to the status quo and do not fit into societies very well. In some ca Everyone interested in learning about autism should read this book. You will gain valuable insight into the origins of the "autism disorders” in an intolerant society obsessed with social control. Unrelated to the book: Autism spectrum disorders were conjured up to label individuals who exhibit specific characteristic combinations of commonly concurrent behaviors, traits, or other attributes which are deemed socially undesirable to the status quo and do not fit into societies very well. In some cases pathological issues (e.g. Fragile X syndrome) can induce "autism" (just a characteristic combination and not a single disorder). However, in other cases of autism such as Asperger's Syndrome there's no evidence of a pathological cause. The label of autism spectrum disorder in the high-functioning individuals is thus political and sociological, not medical. Low and high-functioning autism are only vaguely associated through social resemblance, not cause, and in many cases this characteristic combination could very well be the result of natural human variation. In each case "autism" is only a consequent of something else, whether variation or pathological. Autism not a medical disorder in and of itself. You cannot simply label something as a medical disorder because it produces undesirable sociological results in contrast to the majority. The same goes for many other supposed "disorders" in the DSM. The inclusion and removal of disorders to the DSM are not made according to scientific evidence or validity, but entirely according to a voting mechanism of consensus by those in an authoritative position who are driven by self-righteousness and self-interest. Cannot get any more political and oppressive than that. Psychiatrists are intolerant quacks and those who support psychiatry favor tradition and authority over merit and personal autonomy. When met with opposition they tend to pathetically gain refuge in consensus as a means of gaining a false sense of validation and marginalizing those opposed, such as myself. Consensus doesn't translate to validity and social deviance does not inherently translate to a "mental disorder" or pathology. The only thing they have going for them is power. The illusion is sickening. I think psychiatrists should be required to prove that these are of pathological origin before asserting disorder over variation. Until then I'll stick with the opinion that "autism" and many other disorders (e.g. "ADHD/ADD") are nothing more than a surreptitious societal inconvenience, not a "disorder", and psychiatry a political tool. Surreptitious because blatantly admitting these "disorders" are just a societal inconvenience would delegitimize psychiatry's warrant for influence and power over these vulnerable individuals. It's not that long ago homosexuality was still being pathologized by psychiatry. That is until homosexuality became more societally acceptable and psychiatry met with great opposition. Further illustrating my point. I was diagnosed with this absurd "disorder" as an adolescent by a psychiatrist who would not even interact with me until I threatened breaking out of his hospital. As soon as we spoke I explained how I intended to sue him for false imprisonment and was discharged some days later on legal grounds. His conclusion of autism was based on absurdities like a letter written by a judgemental tutor who barely interacted with me (e.g. presumptions about me), other people's accounts, files, weak inductions, and presumptions (something I would always warn him against making). Those people will see and hear what they want to see and hear. Psychiatrists have an unbelievable propensity to chase confirmation bias. On one of the few occasions in which he actually attempted speaking I was very swiftly removed since I did not give the answers he wanted, the ones he was trying to acquire. Rather I spoke my mind and tried being as authentic as possible. He put me out of the room after uttering the words "mother knows best" to me on one occasion. For example, he did not like the fact that I was critical of an old school principal and did not want to believe that she mistreated me based solely on the fact that she sounded empathetic in one specific letter regarding me. He also did not like when I disagreed with my mother's and other individual's accounts of events or descriptions of me. He would often proceeded to talk to my agreeable, suggestible and self-deceptive mother alone (e.g. very quick to agree with his "autism" nonsense, derives her accounts not from memory but conjures to satisfy her ego), and listen only to her version of events while neglecting mine, which I found quite predatory, and labeled me as being "hostile" for challenging him exhibiting disapproval in my body language (yes psychiatrists will do that) such as swaying of the head side to side, directly looking at him in the eye, frowning and giving an expression exhibiting disgust. The patient is no position of power and what they have to say is easily disregarded without inference of truth or validity. I even demanded that I be given valid reasons as to why "mother knows best" and why things I have to say are disregarded. They couldn't give any. Quacks. The consultant psychiatrist likewise believed I had this disorder, along with the "adult only" hospital which I was admitted to but removed from (the treatment was very degrading and abusive leaving not only my family, but also the judge, displeased) some months prior from being discharged from the second hospital on legal grounds. Although I was never informed that I was diagnosed with autism until months after the fact. I've read a bit about autism and quite frankly I don't I fit the criteria for any "autism spectrum disorder". But at the same time I will not accept that those who do fit the criteria inherently have a disorder. I know many of my personal issues to be inflicted, not innate. I think psychiatrists are too trigger friendly with this blanket diagnosis. So much so that they completely neglected and caused a relapse in my "eating disorder" (which I warned them about many times throughout treatment) and permanent disfigurement by administering anti-psychotic drugs notorious for inducing rapid and excessive weight gain, which are often prescribed for autistic spectrum disorders as off-label use to make one more passive. And when I questioned my mother recently (since I was kept in the dark so much) about why my eating disorder was neglected and why nobody wanted to help me loose weight after been taken off medication (until after I began starving myself reluctantly), she informed me that they supposedly believed I was making it up for "power". Not surprisingly. Kind of sickening considering I went from being obese to anorexic in a matter of months at the age of thirteen, years prior to treatment. For me this diagnosis lead to the exacerbation of actual issues I had and other issues (e.g. social) neglected and never resolved, not to mention a complete and rational distrust in psychiatry. I've been left in a state of perpetual suicidal ideation. It seems anyone with the slightest social issues is on the "spectrum" these days. There was a short period in which I did agree with the disorder since it was desirable in legal defense in unrelated matters Other than that I have always contested the diagnosis. There is no "autism disorder spectrum". There is undesirable variation among the desirable variation and there are those with pathological issues which elicit vaguely similar characteristics. That's nature. Do not throw them into the same boat over a vague social resemblance. Accept diversity in those with no proven pathological cause. Really a lot of these individuals supposedly suffering from "Asperger's syndrome" are best described as social outcasts, rejects. But society wants to reflect well upon itself and psychiatrists want to label minorities who deviates with "mental disorders"... I'll be looking forward to seeing what Edith Sheffer has in store for us next.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Amy Payne

    I received this book compliments of Goodreads in a giveaway. I’ve worked with children on the spectrum for 20+ years so I was interested to read the origins of the Asperger diagnosis. It was a lot to take in. Due to the hideous euthanasia protocol used during the Nazi regime, I could only read this book in small parts. It was obvious how hard the author worked to gather all the facts, stories and insight of this horrid time period. I am thankful that the Asperger diagnosis is no longer used in t I received this book compliments of Goodreads in a giveaway. I’ve worked with children on the spectrum for 20+ years so I was interested to read the origins of the Asperger diagnosis. It was a lot to take in. Due to the hideous euthanasia protocol used during the Nazi regime, I could only read this book in small parts. It was obvious how hard the author worked to gather all the facts, stories and insight of this horrid time period. I am thankful that the Asperger diagnosis is no longer used in the DSM or everyday language so that man is no longer credited with identifying children who display certain characteristics indicative of high functioning autism.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Kip Koelsch

    3.5 stars: This is difficult but important subject matter--eugenics and its impact on child psychology and psychiatry in Nazi Germany and beyond. But, I'm not sure the discussion was well-served by these treatment. The focus of the work, Hans Asperger appears more of a tenuous thread keeping the narrative together. What amazed me the most (and maybe this was the point?) was the impact this seemingly mediocre researcher and doctor had on today's treatment and diagnosis of children. Perhaps that r 3.5 stars: This is difficult but important subject matter--eugenics and its impact on child psychology and psychiatry in Nazi Germany and beyond. But, I'm not sure the discussion was well-served by these treatment. The focus of the work, Hans Asperger appears more of a tenuous thread keeping the narrative together. What amazed me the most (and maybe this was the point?) was the impact this seemingly mediocre researcher and doctor had on today's treatment and diagnosis of children. Perhaps that really was the point of the book--calling out the astonishing increase in "autism" diagnosis following the rediscovery and propagation of Asperger's previously unheralded work in the late 70s-early 80s? If you are interested in this aspect of autism--I recommend the book. If you are interested in the depth of depravity of the Nazi eugenics, euthanasia and psychological classification programs, this will provide some insight--specifically related to the programs in Vienna.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Erin

    To say this book is painful to read is an understatement. But if you've ever wondered to yourself "How did people get to the point where they felt it was okay to judge and exterminate people during World War II?" this book helps answer some of those questions in terms of psychological and social expectations. I now more deeply understand the Reich's fixation on and promotion of the group mindset, and how this obsession with all members of society "wanting to be part of the group" allowed unspeak To say this book is painful to read is an understatement. But if you've ever wondered to yourself "How did people get to the point where they felt it was okay to judge and exterminate people during World War II?" this book helps answer some of those questions in terms of psychological and social expectations. I now more deeply understand the Reich's fixation on and promotion of the group mindset, and how this obsession with all members of society "wanting to be part of the group" allowed unspeakable atrocities to occur even well before the Holocaust, as most of us know it from history. This book delves into the lesser well-known history of the children who were deemed unworthy to be in society by psychological standards of the day. I'm thankful Sheffer spent the time and energy to research and reveal the truth, however gut-wrenching.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Dan

    Sheffer presents a detailed and thoroughly researched work. She selves in to the dire and deadly perils faced by people with disabilities under the Third Reich and the pervasive influence of Nazi philosophy on today’s field of psychiatry and special education. This work represents a critical missing piece in our current understanding of disability and neurodiversity, namely, by whose standards are we defining these individuals? It should be required reading for all educators and for parents of ch Sheffer presents a detailed and thoroughly researched work. She selves in to the dire and deadly perils faced by people with disabilities under the Third Reich and the pervasive influence of Nazi philosophy on today’s field of psychiatry and special education. This work represents a critical missing piece in our current understanding of disability and neurodiversity, namely, by whose standards are we defining these individuals? It should be required reading for all educators and for parents of children of disabilities, especially those who move within the autism community.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Jenn

    I won this book in a Goodreads giveaway in exchange for an honest review. I found the book to be interesting, but it was kind of hard to get through and took me a long time to read-mainly because there was a lot of background info, which, while important for the context, I found to be a bit dry at times. However, it was really eye opening to read about the insidious ways that Nazis worked their way up to making eugenics and extermination an acceptable thing to preserve the purity of the "volk." I won this book in a Goodreads giveaway in exchange for an honest review. I found the book to be interesting, but it was kind of hard to get through and took me a long time to read-mainly because there was a lot of background info, which, while important for the context, I found to be a bit dry at times. However, it was really eye opening to read about the insidious ways that Nazis worked their way up to making eugenics and extermination an acceptable thing to preserve the purity of the "volk." Overall, I learned a lot!

  16. 5 out of 5

    Christie

    Haunting and troubling, especially being the mother of a child with "autistic psychopathy", I found this book to be as informative as it was difficult to stomach. There were many times that I cried as I tried to envision the euthanasia of children, based solely upon nationalistic policy and the concept of Eugenics.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Justlesa Hall

    Such a fantastic portrayal of the time period. I learned so much not just about Asperger but about other doctors and practices at the time. I wish there had of been more about the woman who coined the term in America, her story seemed to just be a last minute addition. Absolutely love the ending.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Edward Sullivan

    A chilling examination of Nazi eugenics policy and the practice of exterminating "defective" children. Sheffer's narrative focuses on pediatrcian Hans Asperger who apparently saved the lives of many children in his care but was also complicit in sending many others to their deaths.

  19. 5 out of 5

    April

    I was expecting more of what happened on a day-to-day basis inside of the Am Spiegelgrund clinic, but instead it was more about the ideology of the time.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Betsy Del Vecchio

    Very well researched and written. A difficult, emotionally devastating read.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Leslie Jonsson

    Extremely thought provoking book on the creator of the term "Aspergers syndrome, and his connections to the Nazi regime in Europe.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Nissa

    I found this book to be really informative and well-balanced. I won a free kindle version of this book in a goodreads giveaway.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Steve

    A very interesting book and tragic as well as how Nazi doctors and psychiatrists helped the Germans eliminate children who had special needs.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Tena

    I won a kindle version #GoodreadsGiveaway

  25. 4 out of 5

    Michelle Farley

  26. 4 out of 5

    Calesha

  27. 4 out of 5

    Kathy Davis

  28. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

  29. 4 out of 5

    Ashley Cox

  30. 4 out of 5

    Rachel

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