What we must learn from Asperger exposé

The late Lorna Wing, above, had Hans Asperger translated long before the world knew of his involvement in the Nazis’ euthanasia programme, says Uta Frith. Photograph: Rex

It has taken me a while to digest Herwig Czech’s deeply upsetting information about Hans Asperger (Revealed: how Doctor Asperger aided the Nazi project, 19 April).

When, in 1991, I translated Asperger’s seminal 1944 paper on “Autistic psychopathy in childhood”, none of this was known. Neither Lorna Wing, the instigator of the translation, nor I believed he was part of the Nazi machinery of death. My translation, footnotes and description of Asperger in the introductory chapter were based on scant sources: the paper itself, a few media sources (eg an interview he gave in the 1970s) and an interview with his daughter. As a clinical psychologist and academic, I thought highly of his clinical descriptions, which largely highlighted the positive aspects of what has become known as Asperger syndrome.

It is very saddening that he appears to have been a willing accomplice in the Nazi euthanasia programme. It seems certain now that he effectively signed the death warrants of children with severe brain damage, while at the same time providing educational therapy for the children in his clinic.

The term Asperger syndrome is not in the most recent diagnostic systems, for scientific reasons, but it will be up to the autism community to decide whether it should remain in use.
Uta Frith
Emeritus professor of cognitive development, UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience

• While researching autism’s history at Oxford, I became the first openly autistic postgraduate in the UK to win the Wellcome Trust’s PhD studentship. That Asperger helped Nazis euthanise disabled children, if true, is horrifying. But it should not obscure our memory. Throughout this period, American and British psychiatrists endorsed eugenicist ideologies and sometimes heinous acts. To list but a few examples: autism’s co-discoverer in America, Leo Kanner, supported sterilisation for the mentally disabled, while Foster Kennedy, chairman of the American Psychiatric Association, advocated a US euthanasia programme to be modelled upon the Nazis’. In England, Winston Churchill endorsed the Mental Deficiency Act 1913, mandating that all “imbeciles” be separated from society and involuntarily committed to labour camps, typically for the rest of their lives. Amid often awful squalor, many deteriorated and died.

Hitler’s rationale seems less distant from even modern political rhetoric than many imagine. Nazis spoke of “useless eaters”, those “hereditary defectives” certain to cost the government thousands of marks per year.

The real lesson of Czech’s study, it seems, is not that Asperger was a monster – even if he was – but that we must understand his ideological mistake if we are never to repeat it. Asperger associated autism with capacity for brilliance. But even when it isn’t, even when a disability entails no such thing, the life of the disabled person – their security, their freedom, their individual potential – becomes not a shred less valuable.
Sahil Singh Gujral
New York, USA

• Children with special needs grow up into adults with special needs (Forcing schools to abandon inclusion leaves us all poorer, 16 April; Letters, 19 April). Nationally, only 16% of people with Asperger syndrome are employed full time – and that includes my 39-year-old son, recently diagnosed with high-functioning Asperger’s. In spite of an MA, and IT and administration qualifications, he has got nowhere with the hundreds of jobs he has applied for over the past three years.

As one would expect, the interview is his biggest challenge. However, apart from occasional readjustment of the furniture to make the process more “friendly”, no concessions are made. The same questions are asked, the same requirements of social communication expected. Employers’ expectation seems to be that applicants on the autism spectrum should “step up” to their mindset, rather than the other way around. And take it from me and my son – all those “disability friendly” logos on job websites mean very little.

My son currently works part-time in a supermarket. The inequity goes on and on and on.
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