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A response to the book Asperger’s Children by Edith Sheffer

Walter Heijder's latest blog entry

[Posted on 31 July, 2018 by Walter Heijder]

In May 2018 the book Asperger’s Children by Edith Sheffer was published. It is “the first comprehensive study of the links between autism and Nazism.” In this book there are several themes. A first theme is the depicting of Nazi (child) psychiatry, which was simply gruesome. Nazi psychiatrists invested in those disabled children who they thought could be useful to society upon reaching adulthood. They had another program for the ‘useless’ disabled children: euthanasia. It was either treatment or elimination.

A second theme is the portraying of Hans Asperger in this killing system. Although he was not a member of the Nazi party, did not kill anybody and was not directly responsible for any murder, he was unmistakably a link in this system and indirectly responsible for the death of tens of children. For some people this information is reason enough to feel uncomfortable about using the terminology Asperger syndrome any longer.

A third theme is Sheffer’s analysis of ‘Autistic psychopathy’ in childhood (Die ‘Autistischen Psychopathen’ im Kindesalter), Asperger’s landmark paper, published in 1944 in Vienna. Asperger’s world fame is based on this article. In fact: the syndrome he described is much more famous than Hans Asperger himself. “Asperger drew a sharp line between children with positive versus negative worth” Sheffer writes. It is easy to see the connection with the treatment group and the elimination group. Sheffer also writes: “He was unequivocal about children he deemed more disabled: they would be of little social value“. That is one step away from the euthanasia program.

The ‘children with positive worth’ (as Sheffer calls them) were clever autistic children; the ‘children with negative worth’ were autistic children with an intellectual impairment.

In his paper, Hans Asperger describes four children in great detail. About 35% of his article is devoted to two able boys: Fritz and Harro. About 15% of his article is devoted to two intellectually impaired boys: Ernst and Hellmuth.

Sheffer’s analysis of Asperger’s paper culminates on page 179 of her book. The full page is quoted below. For later reference, the phrases she quotes from Asperger are in bold. There are three paragraphs.

[Paragraph 1] Asperger was brutal about these “less favourable cases.” Drawing on images of “asocial” and “dissocial” individuals in Nazi psychiatry, Asperger prophesied that these children would grow up to “roam the streets as ‘originals,’ grotesque and dilapidated, talking loudly to themselves or unconcernedly to passers-by.”
[Paragraph 2] Moreover, Asperger denied the humanity of autistic children he saw as more impaired. Throughout his thesis, Asperger referred to them as “intelligent automata,” and spoke of “the automaton-like nature of the whole personality.” He called Hellmuth “an autistic automaton.” Asperger’s idea of automata referred not only to the children’s lack of productive value to society, but also to their incapacity for social feeling. Those at the “unfavourable” end of Asperger’s range of autistic psychopathy would remain outside the national community.
[Paragraph 3] Asperger went so far as to say that these children, who he believed could not “be an integral part of the world,” would be “unable to learn,” (emphasis in original). This term was consonant with Nazi psychiatry’s idea of “ineducable,” a key criterion for killing in the euthanasia program. In effacing a child’s individuality, such labels of Nazi psychiatry rendered children unrecognizable as human, let alone as individuals. They were sentences of psychiatric death, and given to children who found themselves led to killing centers, facing actual death.

Sheffer is not the first to write about Hans Asperger and the Nazis, but these claims in a mainstream book are unprecedented. If these claims turn out to be true, then away with Hans Asperger and his paper, at least for me.

But are these claims true?

Let’s have a look.

The phrase intelligent automata is a catchy one. In his book We Are Our Brains, Dutch neuroscience researcher Dick Swaab writes: “The children Asperger described as Intelligenzautomaten (intelligence machines) had a precocious grasp of language, could talk about their experiences and feelings, and were normally able.” Intelligenzautomaten is the only word Swaab quotes from Asperger, but he does not complain about the humiliating character of the word. I feel like ‘intelligence machines’ is a better translation of Intelligenzautomaten, compared to ‘intelligent automata’, but that’s a detail.

I will now quote the whole passage from Asperger’s article, where he uses the word Intelligenzautomaten. I will quote from the translation made by Uta Frith (published in 1991). I am using this translation as this is the same source as Sheffer uses for her book.

Another important point is this: normal children acquire the necessary social habits without being consciously aware of them, they learn instinctively. It is these instinctive relations that are disturbed in autistic children. To put it bluntly, these individuals are intelligent automata. [In German: Diese Menschen sind, krass ausgedrückt, Intelligenzautomaten.] Social adaptation has to proceed via the intellect. In fact, they have to learn everything via the intellect. One has to explain and enumerate everything, where, with normal children, this would be an error of educational judgement. Autistic children have to learn the simple daily chores just like proper homework, systematically. With some children who admittedly were somewhat older than Harro, it was possible to achieve a relatively smooth integration by establishing an exact timetable in which, from the moment of rising at a particular time, every single occupation and duty was outlined in detail. When such children left the hospital they were given a timetable. It was, of course, made up in consultation with the parents and adapted to the individual needs of each family. The children had to give an account of how well they followed the timetable, sometimes by keeping a diary. They felt that they were firmly tied to this ‘objective law’. In any case, many of them have pedantic tendencies veering towards the obsessional, and it was possible to use such tendencies for this regulatory purpose.

The word Intelligenzautomaten is a rather “crass” way to put it … says Hans Asperger himself. After all, we are talking about “human beings” (Menschen) … says the man himself again, before he gives pedagogical advice on how to deal with these children. But the most striking thing is: in Asperger’s paper, Intelligenzautomaten does not refer solely to the intellectually impaired children only. The quoted passage is taken from the part where Asperger describes Harro, one of the two more able boys. At that point in his paper, Asperger has not yet made the distinction between the able children and the intellectually impaired ones. His word Intelligenzautomaten clearly refers to all autistic children.

The following is a passage about Ernst, an intellectually impaired boy.
It was quite difficult to decide whether Ernst was particularly able or mentally retarded, but there are numerous unequivocally retarded people who show the typical and unmistakable characteristics of autistic psychopathy: the disturbance of contact, with the typical expressive phenomena in terms of glance, voice, mimics, gesture and movement, the disciplinary difficulties, the malice, the pedantries and stereotypies, the automaton-like nature of the whole personality, the lack of ability to learn (to acquire automatic programmes), juxtaposed with relatively superior spontaneous performance. Indeed, in the mentally retarded autistic individual the impairments just mentioned are usually even more striking, since there is no counter weight of otherwise normal functions.

Although Ernst is intellectually impaired, he has the same characteristics of autistic psychopathy, says Hans Asperger. And then Asperger gives a list of the characteristics of autistic psychopathy. In this list this phrase appears: “the automaton-like nature of the whole personality”. It is not said that anyone actually is an automaton, but it is said that the whole personality of some people is like an automaton. But again the most striking thing is that in Asperger’s paper the quoted phrase does not refer solely to the intellectually impaired children. It again clearly refers to all autistic children.

The following is a passage about Hellmuth, the other intellectually impaired boy.
Much of his description is reminiscent of the earlier cases. This boy was ‘an autistic automaton’, impractical and instinctually disturbed. His relationships with the outside world were extremely limited. He did not have any genuine human relationships, was full of pedantries and also showed spiteful behaviour.

Although Hellmuth is intellectually impaired, his description is reminiscent of the earlier cases. The word ‘cases’ is plural, so it can not only refer to Ernst. Therefore it must refer to the more able Fritz and Harro as well. Asperger gives a short list of characteristics of all the cases of autistic children. First characteristic: to be an autistic automaton. Note that Hans Asperger uses quotation marks (‘an autistic automaton’), also in the German original text, as if to say: this is metaphoric language; I don’t mean that the boy is an actual automaton. Sheffer does not inform her readers about these quotation marks.

Sheffer writes: “Asperger’s idea of automata referred not only to the children’s lack of productive value to society, but also to their incapacity for social feeling.” But from the provided quoted passages it appears that in the first place the word “automata” referred to the inability to acquire social habits like normal children do.

In the second paragraph on page 179, Sheffer quotes three catchy phrases from Asperger (“intelligent automata”, “the automaton-like nature of the whole personality” and “an autistic automaton”) all out of context. When put back in that very context, it shows that Hans Asperger did not mean these phrases literally. Also: none of the three phrases refer solely to the more impaired children, as Sheffer states; they all three referred to all autistic children. Her claims of the second paragraph on page 179 are therefore not true.

Apart from untrue, Sheffer’s claims do not make sense. One does not give pedagogical advice regarding intelligence machines. For machines one does not organise a euthanasia program. The Nazis wanted to eliminate Lebensunwertes Leben (life unworthy of life), not the existence of machines.

I now turn to Sheffer’s third paragraph on page 179. I start with a quote taken from Asperger’s description of Ernst.

Again, we found the peculiar signs of ‘autistic intelligence’. Performance was best when he gave a spontaneous response, worst when he had to reproduce learnt material or do something in a prescribed manner. His knowledge of the world arose mainly out of his own experience and did not come from learning from others. This is, of course, precisely what makes the achievements of autistic people so often particularly original and delightful. With the less able children, who are much more disturbed, however, the answers are not so much valuable as deviant. The bits of knowledge that they gain accidently from their own experience often miss the point. This is the same with their language. In the favourable case, we can often obtain especially apt and original verbal expressions. In the unfavourable case, however, the expressions tend towards neologisms and are often more abstruse than delightful.
With Ernst K. the negative aspects outweighed the positive ones, especially if we consider that he was a good half-a-year older than Harro L. His performance on similarities was by far the best he managed on the test, demonstrating as it did his independent powers of observation and experience. On the other tests, especially the school attainment tests, we could see the reverse side of ‘autistic intelligence’. If somebody can only experience in an original way, and if he can only be ‘his own self’ rather than feel himself to be an integral part of the world – in other words, if he is not engaged in constant interaction – then he is unable to learn. He cannot assimilate the ready-made knowledge and skill that others present to him. He is also unable to build up ‘automatic programmes’ through practice and habit.

Sheffer writes that Asperger “believed” that the less able autistic children “could not ‘be an integral part of the world,’” She is quick to make the connection with the euthanasia program of the Nazis. But in the source Hans Asperger wrote about someone who could not “feel himself to be an integral part of the world”. That’s not the same, rather the opposite.

Hans Asperger did indeed write that some children are “unable to learn” (this time Sheffer is eager to inform her readers that the emphasis is in the original). Sheffer is keen on making the connection with ‘ineducable’, a label that opened the doors of the Nazi euthanasia facilities. But this would only make sense if the unable-to-learn-criterion applies solely to the intellectually impaired autistic children, not to the able autistic children. Let’s take a closer look at this.

Hans Asperger devotes several pages on what he calls autistic intelligence. Here is the first paragraph on this:

The skills that a child acquires grow out of a tension between two opposite poles: one is spontaneous production, the other one imitation of adult knowledge and skills. They have to balance each other if the achievement is to be of value. When original ideas are lacking achievement is an empty shell: what has been learnt is merely a superficial and mechanical copy. Autistic intelligence is characterised by precisely the opposite of this problem. Autistic children are able to produce original ideas. Indeed, they can only be original, and mechanical learning is hard for them. They are simply not set to assimilate and learn an adult’s knowledge. Just as, in general, somebody’s good and bad sides are inextricable linked, so the special abilities and disabilities of autistic people are interwoven.

Together with what Asperger wrote about the intelligence of the intellectually impaired Ernst, this picture appears: all autistic children have difficulties with learning from adults. The clever autistic children want to find out things for themselves and can do so. “Indeed, they can only be original”. But the intellectually impaired autistic children do not learn from adults and cannot figure out things for themselves. Therefore they are unable to learn at all.

We know from history that the Nazis had no use for children who were unable to learn. Would they have wanted to invest in children who would refuse their (Nazi) knowledge and only could come up with original ideas? Of course not! Therefore Sheffer’s claim about Asperger’s unable-to-learn equalling the Nazi’s ‘ineducable’ label does not make sense. For the third paragraph of page 179 applies the same as for the second: when Sheffer quotes are put back in Asperger context and when statements are thought over, Sheffer’s claims evaporate into airy nothing.

But what about the first paragraph on page 179? Let’s look at the whole passage from which the quotes have been taken. The last subheading before the ‘conclusion’ of Asperger’s paper is titled: ‘The Social Value of the Autistic Psychopath’. Here are the first three paragraphs:

The aim of this paper was to report on a personality disorder already manifest in childhood which to my knowledge has not yet been described. In the following section we try to go beyond this aim and consider what will become of autistic children. At the same time, we shall consider their potential value to society. This question is important enough to be discussed in spite of the limitations of this paper, which can deal only with autism in childhood.
One might expect from much what has been said so far that social integration of autistic people is extremely difficult if not impossible. After all, we have pointed out that the essential feature of the condition is a disturbance of adaptation to the social environment. This bleak expectation, however, is borne out only in a minority of cases, and, in particular, almost exclusively in those people with considerable intellectual retardation in addition to autism.
The fate of the latter cases is often very sad [in German: recht traurig]. At best they may get into a low-level odd job, often only on a temporary basis. In the less favourable cases, they
roam the streets as ‘originals,’ grotesque and dilapidated, talking loudly to themselves or unconcernedly to passers-by as autistic individuals would. They are taunted by urchins and react to this with wild but ineffectual outbursts.

In this passage, Hans Asperger writes about a minority of autistic people: those with an intellectual retardation. Within this group he makes two subgroups: the odd-jobbers and the street-roamers. Sheffer believes that the phrase ‘less favourable cases’ refers to the ‘more disabled autistic children’. Again she is mistaken. Put back in context, the phrase actually refers to the street-roamers, a subgroup of the ‘more disabled autistic children’. That is not a major blow to her argumentation; it is yet another example of Sheffer’s inaccuracy.

Moreover, Hans Asperger did not make a prophecy about the ‘less favourable cases’, as Sheffer states. He described existing cases of autistic adults with an intellectual impairment. But most interesting is that here we also have an articulation of Asperger’s attitude regarding the intellectually impaired autistic people. He calls their fate “very sad” [recht traurig]. Very sad?! That’s not an indication of brutality; it’s rather an indication of compassion.

[This is a blog. The purpose of the blog is to provide information and raise awareness concerning important issues. All views and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not necessarily shared by the GNC.]