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Asperger’s links to Nazis causes society to consider name change

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A grave site for children who were euthanized at the Am Spiegelgrund clinic in Vienna during the Second World War. (Haeferl/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Shocking new revelations that the namesake of Asperger’s syndrome was an accomplice to the Nazi murder of children has spurred the Asperger’s Society of Ontario (ASO) to considering changing its name, but it is encountering resistance.

Detailed information that has come to light over the past few months about Dr. Hans Asperger has “certainly raised red flags both within our community and with the Asperger’s Society of Ontario board of directors,” the organization said in a statement to The CJN.

The ASO is “in the process of considering our options in this regard and will let our constituents know once we’ve made a decision.

“We do not want to be aligned with someone associated with the Nazi regime.”

But a decision to rebrand “cannot be taken lightly and requires the development of a strategy that incorporates discussion and consultation with our community and experts in this field.”

The society said it supports a community that is “resistant to change.”

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It cited a “quick poll” of its members, which showed that 86 individuals self-identified as having Asperger’s syndrome, while 19 said they were “autistic.”

Asperger’s syndrome has long been considered a mild form of autism. In 2013, the name was dropped from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) and is now defined as autism spectrum disorder, or ASD.

However, “many in our community have not embraced the change,” the ASO noted in its statement, adding that when the DSM-5 was published, the society made “a strategic decision” not to rebrand, partly because awareness of Asperger’s syndrome had become “much more mainstream” thanks to public education, and also “since it was increasingly becoming part of popular culture.”

The controversy surrounding Asperger, an Austrian pediatrician and professor, surfaced some years ago, but found new traction this spring, following the publication of a story in the New York Times by Edith Sheffer of the Institute of European Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and of a study in the journal Molecular Autism by Herwig Czech, an expert in the history of medicine at the University of Vienna.

They revealed that in Vienna, following the absorption of Austria into the Third Reich in 1938, Asperger co-operated with the Nazi regime and was rewarded for his loyalty with career opportunities.

According to the study by Herwig, Asperger publicly legitimized Nazi race hygiene policies, including forced sterilizations, and, on several occasions, actively co-operated with the Nazi’s child “euthanasia” program.

We do not want to be aligned with someone associated with the Nazi regime.
– Asperger’s Society of Ontario

He was “inextricably linked with the rise of Nazism and its deadly programs,” wrote Sheffer, and “sent dozens of children to their deaths.”

Asperger, who died in 1980, worked closely with “the top figures in Vienna’s euthanasia program,” including Erwin Jekelius, the director of a children’s clinic called Am Spiegelgrund. Asperger recommended the transfer of children to Spiegelgrund, at which “dozens of them were killed,” Sheffer wrote.

“Killings were done in the youths’ own beds, as nurses issued overdoses of sedatives until the children grew ill and died, usually of pneumonia.”

Sheffer called for people to stop using the name “Asperger’s” to describe the condition.

“It’s one way to honour the children killed in his name, as well as those still labeled with it,” wrote Sheffer.

Asperger’s syndrome no longer exists as a diagnosis, Laurie Mawlam, executive director of Autism Canada, told The CJN.

Still, “many Canadians have an Asperger syndrome diagnosis from years gone by and really identify with it. They commonly call themselves ‘Aspies’ and include this in the names of their blogs, social media handles and URLs.”

Peter Singer, a bioethicist and professor of medicine at the University of Toronto, said, “We should not venerate an individual who was complicit in Nazi euthanasia and eugenics. Nor should we disrespect those with autism spectrum disorder by linking them to such an individual.”