Die ‘Autistischen Psychopathen’ im Kindersalter - An Introduction

(From the Vienna University Childrens’ Hospital [Director: Prof. Franz Hamburger])
The “Autistic Psychopath” in Childhood.
Dozent Dr Hans Asperger
Head of the Special Education department of the hospital.
(Received on 8 October 1943)

It is important that Asperger’s seminal paper is viewed in its historical context.

At the time of its submission in the autumn of 1943, Austria was a fully-integrated part of the Nazi’s Third Reich and Asperger had attained the rank of Dozent - just below that of Professor, at the Vienna University’s Childrens’ Hospital.

60,000 Reichsmarks is the lifetime cost to our Community, of this Genetically-diseased person. People that is your money. Read ‘New People’ the monthly of the Nazi Party’s Race-Policy Office”. This poster from the 1930’s exemplifies the Nazi’s attitude to the constitutionally disabled. Image © 1988 DHM, www.dhm.de
His superior, Professor Franz Hamburger was a committed and it seems, superficially at least, an enthusiastic supporter of the Nazi regime. In 1939, Hamburger gave an address at a medical conference: [i]

National socialism means a revolution in every sphere of our civilization and culture... Most noteworthy of all... is the revolution in the realm of medical science, in the field of public health... Medicine has now progressed beyond its old frontiers and has broken out of its shell, thanks to the philosophy and deeds of the führer. With admirable clarity and logic the führer points the way into these fields”, “like a physician by the grace of God he shows us the path to health. The chief spokesmen of the various medical disciplines at the universities must be confirmed Nazis; this applies especially to clinicians.

Asperger spoke of his relationship with Hamburger during a radio interview in 1974

Asperger at work at the Vienna University Childrens' Hospital.
It is totally inhuman - as we saw with dreadful consequences - when people accept the concept of a worthless life... As I was never willing to accept this concept - in other words, to notify the Health Office of the mentally deficient - this was a truly dangerous situation for me.

I must give credit to my mentor Hamburger, because although he was a convinced National Socialist, he saved me twice from the Gestapo with a strong personal commitment. He knew my attitude abut he protected me with his whole being”. [ii]

Reading the paper it is obvious Asperger emphasises the strengths and talents of his ‘autists’, and this is rightly pointed-out in Uta Frith’s translation. Noteworthy is the small change Asperger made to the text when it was republished after the end of the War. (see Frith’s footnote [83]).

By 1943, the sterilization or euthanasia of those deemed mentally incompetent or genetically diseased was routine and widespread:

The primary responsibility of the courts, however, was to adjudicate the Sterilization Law. According to its provisions, doctors were required to register every case of genetic illness known to them... Individuals were usually first recommended for sterilization by their physician...

[An example of the kind of test those nominated for sterilization would face]

“The assignment test: the subject is given map and receives instructions to buy the following objects: half a hundredweight of potatoes, one-half pound of coffee, one-half pound of sausage, fifty pfennings worth of fresh biscuits, and a pound of butter. He is further required to bring a pair of trousers to the tailor and a pair of shoes to the cobbler, as well as a ten-pound package to the post office. He is also required to pay a certain amount of tax at City Hall and to pick up a freind at the train station.

The following rules are to be observed:

The person leaves the house at 10:30. At 1:00 he should be back for lunch and have accomplished all his tasks. Now the Tax Office is only open from 8 to 10 A.M., fresh bread is available only after 11 A.M., and the friend arrives at the station at 12:30. The post office and all the stores are open between 12 and 2. Between the apartment and the train station runs a streetcar - which takes one-quarter of an hour and may be used at will.”

If the subject proved himself fit to avoid sterilization by solving these ‘practical puzzels’, there were further questions requiring more creative though.’ [iii]

Towards towards the end of the paper, Asperger mounts a passionate and it would seem in light of the circumstances, a personally very dangerous defence of the children:

The superficially surprising fact that such difficult and abnormal children can achieve a tolerable, or even excellent, degree of social integration can he explained if one considers it a little further.

A good professional attitude involves single-mindedness as well as the decision to give up a large number of other interests. Many people find this a very unpleasant decision. Quite a number of young people choose the wrong job because, being equally talented in different areas, they cannot muster the dedication necessary to focus on a single career.

Thus, the truth of the old adage is proved again; good and bad in every character are just two sides of the same coin. It is simply not possible to separate them, to opt for the positive and get rid of the negative.

We are convinced, then, that autistic people have their place in the organism of the social community. They full their role well, perhaps better than anyone else could, and we are talking of people who as children had the greatest difficulties and caused untold worries to their care-givers.

The example of autism shows particularly well how even abnormal personalities can be capable of development and adjustment. Possibilities of social integration which one would never have dreamt of may arise in the course of development. This knowledge determines our attitude towards complicated individuals of this and other types.

It also gives us the right and the duty to speak out for these children with the whole force of our personality. We believe that only the absolutely dedicated and loving educator can achieve success with difficult individuals.

From: Asperger, H. (1944), Die ‘Autistischen Psychopathen’ im Kindersalter. Archiv für Psychiatrie und Nervenkrankheiten, 117, 76-136.

Asperger found himself spending the last part of World War II as a soldier in Croatia. It is not known if this was a result of the views he expressed in the paper.

Norton Gunthorpe,
July 2010.
Continue reading: Autism in Childhood - Part One

[i] The Nazi Creed with Regard to Medicine, J Am Med Assoc, May 1939; 112; 1981 - 1982
[ii] A History of Autism: Conversations with the
Pioneers. By Adam Feinstein IBSN 978-1-4051-8654-4
[iii] Racial hygiene: medicine under the Nazis. By Robert Proctor.

Recommended Reading:
A History of Autism: Conversations with the
Pioneers. By Adam Feinstein.
ISBN: 978-1-4051-8653-7.

Autism and Asperger Syndrome.
Edited by Uta Frith.
ISBN-10: 052138608X.

Autism: Explaining the Enigma, 2nd Edition. By Uta Frith.
ISBN: 978-0-631-22901-8.

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