A new study by the historian Czech Herwig – the culmination of eight years of research – has decisively shown that Hans Asperger, who first developed the concept of autism as we know it today, was highly complicit in the Nazi eugenics programme. Amongst other things, he sent many cognitively disabled children to be euthanised, suggesting, in line with Nazi ideology, that they were ‘burdens’ to their parents. At the same time, a new book by researcher Edith Sheffer titled Asperger’s Children, coming out this May, argues that the term ‘Asperger’s syndrome’ should be totally given up. In her words ‘We should stop saying “Asperger.” It’s one way to honor the children killed in his name as well as those still labeled with it’. Regardless of whether we agree with this, it seems clear that Asperger was a very bad man.
The combination of these publications has been a shock for many in the autistic community. Until now, Asperger had widely taken to have been working in subtle resistance to Nazi eugenics. Most notably, Steve Silberman’s best-selling 2015 book Neurotribes held Asperger up as a sort of prototype neurodiversity advocates: a brave resister of Nazi eugenic ideology who baptised the category of autism more as a move of political solidarity than a medical advance. Also, his insights into autism were decades ahead of his time, and indeed, in many ways, very much in line with contemporary thinking.
As both an autistic person and researcher working on the ethics of autism, I am not so much interested here in simply condemning Asperger (although, this is now, quite rightly, being done, and needless to say I am glad that this new research has been published so we can do so). Rather, I am concerned with more practical and pressing concerns that arise in light of these new revelations. First: I want to reassess what went so very wrong with Asperger’s otherwise, as it hitherto seemed, sound reasoning in regards to autism (by which I mean his political philosophy rather than his scientific research). And second, I am also interested in asking how much we have actually changed from his views today.
Why Asperger Seemed Good
Beyond his vital contributions to autism research, Asperger was until now widely thought of as a good person, and it is initially worth considering why. The key reason for this regards his initial 1938 paper on autism, in which Asperger argued against the popular eugenicist notion that undesirable traits could simply be erased from the human population.
In short, according to eugenicist theory, humans could exhibit desirable traits and undesirable traits, and the goal was to slowly erase undesirable traits from humanity through selective breeding. Against this notion, Asperger presented the case of autism. His argument came in two parts. First, he noted how autism came with important benefits, such as strong logical thinking and creativity, rather than just limitations. Second, he argued that the strengths and limitations he associated with the category were inextricably intertwined.
Given the combination of these points, Asperger concluded that autistic people were not just potentially useful members of society, but also that there should be no attempt to alter them – since the negative were so intimately linked with the positives. This seemingly allowed him to save at least some of his patients (i.e. those without further intersecting disabilities) from being killed.
According to Steve Silverman’s influential analysis, then, Hans Asperger’s aims and thoughts in the 1930s were a prototype for contemporary neurodiversity ideology, which – quite rightly – is fiercely pro-autism rights and staunchly anti-eugenics. In short, Asperger and neurodiversity proponents seemed allied in sharing a humanitarian response to what each takes to be as totalitarian ideology and its correlating drive to normalise and homogenise human life. In light of this, for Silberman, there seemed good reason to think of Asperger as a kind of patron saint of the neurodiversity movement.
What Went Wrong With Asperger’s Reasoning?
Asperger seemed to have some good ideas – those we have just mentioned – but clearly went deeply wrong in his thinking (and thus acting) somewhere else. The important thing, given his apparent overlap with much contemporary thinking, including with some neurodiversity proponents, is to ask precisely where he went wrong – lest we repeat the same mistakes.
Clearly, as Herwig covers, many factors were involved. Nonetheless, my suggestion is that the core error in Dr. Asperger’s thinking regards a certain way of thinking about both society and the value of human life. As the sociologist Zigmunt Bauman stressed in his book Modernity and the Holocaust, many atrocious Nazi policies arose in light of a ‘bureaucratic culture which prompts us to view society as an object of administration, as a collection of so many `problems’ to be solved, as `nature’ to be `controlled’, `mastered’ and `improved’ or `remade’, as a legitimate target for `social engineering’’. When combined with the Social Darwinist ideology of Nazi Germany in relation to the perceived ‘race hygiene’ needs of the Third Reich, this way of thinking led to an instrumental way of viewing human life. That is, humans were seen as valuable in relation to their perceived needs of the society, rather than simply being inherently valued as human beings.
In short, then, whilst Asperger (rightly) resisted the notion that single traits could simply be erased from humanity, what is significant is that he (wrongly) still held on to this more general instrumental manner of framing and valuing human life. For his argument was not that autistic life should be valued as such, due to something like a deep love or care for autistic people. Rather, he only argued that his autistic patients should not be killed or altered as they could be instrumentally useful (for instance, he once suggested that they could become effective code breakers for the Nazi party).
The upshot of this was that, whilst this allowed him to save some autistic patients from being steralised or euthanised, he fully endorsed the killing of more seemingly heavily disabled patients. For on his manner of reasoning, they were not useful to society, and so were mere burdens to be killed.
A Problem with Neurodiversity?
Skip forward forty years or so and to the English-speaking world. Autism was by then widely established as a medical category, diagnoses were rising rapidly, and its dark history was at that time widely forgotten. The concept of the autism “spectrum” had recently been developed, and the autistic conditions were increasingly represented as hereditary developmental disorders associated with unique cognitive profiles. Huge amounts of research were being carried out with the aim of treating or “curing” the condition, and journalists were starting to write of the terrible autism “epidemic” that was unfolding across the world.
It was in this context that the neurodiversity movement arose. In the early 1990s, autistic self-advocates such as Jim Sinclair began to argue that autism was not a disorder that required awareness, but a difference that required acceptance and accommodation. They challenged the narrative that it was inherently tragic, and instead argued that autistic suffering was a product of unjust social conditions.
Building on early autism rights self-advocacy, in 1998 the term ‘neurodiversity’ was first used by the journalist Harvey Bloom an article in the Atlantic. He used this to indicate how different neurological types ‘may be every bit as crucial for the human race as biodiversity is for life in general […] Cybernetics and computer culture, for example, may favor a somewhat autistic cast of mind’. As a counter to the medical paradigm’s notion of autism as a disorder, proponents of neurodiversity began to argue that ‘neurological difference’ or ‘neurodivergence’ should be accepted and celebrated for the value it can bring to society.
Today, to be clear, the neurodiversity movement is utterly vital, given how terribly autistic people are pathologised, marginalised, and treated in a neurotypical society. In short, when it comes to the question of cognitive disability, neurodiversity proponents make up the vanguard of the world’s anti-fascists.
Nonetheless, in Blume’s framing – and indeed in the very analogy with biodiversity that the concept of neurodiversity is built upon – the implicit use of instrumental rationality remains. For he does not argue that neurodivergent life is simply valuable in and of itself; rather, he argues that we should value it because we have no idea when those who currently fall outside perceived economic needs will again become more useful for society. The key difference between this and Asperger’s take was that Asperger judged neurodiversity’s value in relation to the Third Reich, whilst Blume does in relation to human society more broadly.
Although not all neurodiversity proponents do this, a good deal, at least, precisely rely on stressing how instrumentally useful autistic and other neurodivergent persons can be. For instance, it is not uncommon to see lists of (alive or dead) “geniuses” who were or are purportedly autistic to be shared among neurodiversity advocates, used in order to justify our worth. In turn, capitalists who have long excluded autistic people have recently started to look into finally giving autistic people jobs, due to increasingly seeing us as a potential instrumental resource to be drawn upon. Even Nick Walker, who I take to be one of the most nuanced neurodiversity proponents and a staunch anti-fascist, claims that a fundamental tenant of the neurodiversity paradigm regards how ‘diversity, when embraced, acts as a source of creative potential within a group or society’.
What Needs to Be Done?
It is important to again emphasise that the neurodiversity movement (from autistic self-advocates such as Walker to allies such as Silberman) provides an utterly vital challenge to the default exclusion and medicalisation of cognitive difference. Indeed: it is the critics of neurodiversity, who seek to eradicate autism, that are much closer to the apparent fascist and eugenicist sympathies of Asperger. And it is also true that neurodivergent people can, indeed, be useful for society in a huge variety of ways, so I certainly do not think people are wrong to correct stigma in this regard.
Nonetheless, it seems to me, to actually cultivate genuine emancipation would require learning to value autistic people intrinsically rather than instrumentally. Whilst it is understandable why neurodiversity proponents have so often resorted to emphasising our instrumental potential (since it has long been unduly denied), focusing so centrally on this – i.e. making it a central tenant of the ideology – leaves those considered to be less valuable behind. Moreover, even if we all were deemed to have positive net instrumental value, this line of argument nonetheless actively takes the focus away the focus from finding non-instrumental, intrinsic value in autistic modes of being.
In short – whilst it is terrible that we have to justify our continued existence at all – for those of us who want to effectively resist eugenicist ideology today, the worry here is that any reliance on instrumental rather than intrinsic value to justify autistic being will, although it may seem to help us justify our existence in the short term, actually reinforce a devaluation of autistic life over a longer period. Given this, something more radical will be needed for the neurodiversity movement to realise its emancipatory aims.