Illustration by Ipsita Sarkar

Asperger’s Syndrome was named after Dr. Asperger, an Austrian doctor. He was one of the first researchers to study autism. He was highly influential in the field, contributing to the idea of a ‘spectrum’. And he was also a Nazi.

For years after his death in 1980, he was venerated for his contributions to his field. It was known that during WWII he had never joined the Nazi party and it was believed that he had saved autistic children from being murdered by the Nazis in their campaign against disabled people – which killed 250,000 disabled people, including children, and forcibly sterilized approximately 300,000 people between 1934-39 alone. Unfortunately, Asperger was not that hero he was thought to be.

The records of his activity in Vienna during the war were thought to be destroyed in bombing raids. Then, during research for a dinner in honour of the doctor in 2009, the records were discovered intact – leaving his reputation in tatters. The truth was that whilst he had never joined the party, they recognised him a loyal Nazi. He sat on the board of a clinic called Am Spiegelgrund, a clinic used to experiment on and kill disabled and sick children. There is evidence that he personally sent approximately two dozen disabled children there.

Dr Asperger encouraged the killing of autistic children and adults. He wrote that autistic children effectively were inherently incompatible to the Nazi cause as autistic people could not, according to him, become ‘integrated members’ of the community. This was a death sentence for autistic people. According to the historian Edith Sheffer, ‘he was travelling at the highest echelons of the killing system, and so I really seem him as more than just a passive follower’.

As a medical diagnosis the term ‘Asperger’s’ was retired before Asperger’s Nazi past was known. When it was used, it was the diagnosis given to autistic people with low support needs, something which is also called ‘highly functioning autism’, a non-medical term with problematic connotations. The term Aspergers or ‘Aspy’ for short is still sometimes used today by autistic people who were diagnosed with it before its retirement. I understand this, especially if they are unaware of the dark history of the man it was named after. However, what I cannot comprehend is it being used by employers and TV shows without explanation that it’s now recognised to be part of the Autistic Spectrum. It is confusing, it propagates the idea that autism and Asperger’s are separate diagnoses when they are, in fact, the same. It also plays into the idea that Asperger’s is a ‘milder’ form of autism. Someone is either autistic or non-autistic, it’s not a scale where some are more autistic than others.

There is no excuse for the term Asperger’s to be used, unless it is the term that the autistic person feels most comfortable with. However, when shows like the Undateables are using it I firmly believe that they should make it clear that it is the individual’s preference. If part of the thesis of the show is to educate abut disabled people, they are failing that mission if they do not make it clear that it is not an official diagnosis- and hasn’t been one for years. It is confusing, it propagates the idea that autism and Asperger’s are separate diagnoses when they are, in fact, the same. It also plays into the idea that Asperger’s is a ‘milder’ form of autism. Someone is either autistic or non-autistic, it’s not a scale where some are more autistic than others. There is not some maximally autistic individual out there, but if there was I’m sure there would be a TV show about it.

The term, if I was diagnosed around ten years ago, is what I would have been diagnosed with. The thought of that is physically repulsive to me. What he did to autistic people was evil. How could he send children to their deaths? Not only that but for the rest of his life, he worked with autistic people and children. He received accolades for his work all whilst he knew exactly what he was guilty of. I wonder if the deaths he caused, both directly and indirectly, weighed on his conscience at all.

Meg Hopkins

When not doing her degree, Meg (she/her) can probably be found procrastinating with her pet cat Pablo. She loves reading, particularly Terry Pratchett and trying to avoid getting lost in Welsh mountains.