Hans Asperger

While I continue, in the background, to work on the next installment of my ongoing series I call “Every Little Thing She Does,” I’m working on other things. One of the things I’m doing is making my way through Steve Silberman’s wonderful book, NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity.

I just finished his chapter on Hans Asperger and found it fascinating. Silberman’s description of the medical milieu in pre-WWII Vienna was, I thought, particularly delicious: a gathering-in of open-minded, bright, thoughtful souls more interested in root causes, humane and individualized treatment, and the search for the truth than they were in easy labels, routine prescriptions, and standardized treatments. It sounded, to me, like an idealized example of science, medicine, and research as they should be practiced.

It was in this setting that Asperger began to notice, study, think, and write about this new condition called “autism.” And it became clear to him, rather quickly, that autism was not “rare,” and that it manifested along a wide spectrum of expression.

All of which contrasted sharply with the larger background setting, which included the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party. Silberman’s descriptions of that unfolding tragedy as it played out in Vienna and elsewhere was chilling. And the way he connected it to the earlier rise of eugenics in the United States was fascinating, and exciting to my ears, given my own current writing project.

Most striking, to me, was how the Nazi presence shaped Asperger’s life and career. As the Nazis put more and more attention on the presence of the weak, wounded, and damaged who lived amongst them, with an eye toward the sterilization or elimination of these “threats” to the gene pool, Asperger found ways to argue for the protection of his patients, highlighting their abilities and superpowers and likening them to the “absent minded professors” they all knew, people who, though strange or eccentric, were capable of making great contributions to the world. He called his autistic patients his “little professors,” and did his best to draw the attention of Nazi eyes away from them.

As far as anyone can tell, Asperger never signed a loyalty oath or joined the party, perhaps because he was protected by one of his superiors who had some influence in the matter. He was, eventually, drafted into theWehrmacht , where he served as a medical officer in Croatia. But much of his early work was lost in the war, as his clinic and school were bombed. And because most things German were shunned or ignored after the war, his discoveries, ideas, observations, and writings were largely lost to the public mind for decades.

In particular, his observations that autism was not rare, and that it manifested along a wide spectrum, were lost for quite some time, severely limiting the ways in which autism was understood and treated.

I found, in my quick search, no English-language biographies of Hans Asperger, though I’d be glad to learn that one exists. This seems a ripe time for such a work, and perhaps even a film treatment, given the current level of interest in the matter. It’s at times like this that I wish I had a clone. He could go off and work on these projects while I continued writing fiction.

No human clones yet? C’mon! We were promised jetpacks. What’s up with that?

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