The Eugenicist Origins of Autism Prior to Hans Asperger

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I’ve recently seen lots of autistic people rejecting the term “Asperger’s” because it is associated with Hans Asperger, who some researchers think was knowingly complicit in Nazi eugenics (although others have more recently contested this, based on newly translated evidence). The general move has been to use “autistic” instead of “Asperger’s”, to shift away from associations with Hans Asperger.

I am sympathetic to dropping “Asperger’s” in favour of “autism”. This is mainly because the separation is divisive for the autistic community, and since functioning labels are often unhelpful and dehumanising. Nonetheless, the argument that “Asperger’s syndrome” should be dropped in favour of “autistic” because Asperger was a Nazi strikes me as overly-simplistic, for at least two reasons.

First, Asperger himself didn’t use the term “Asperger’s syndrome”; in fact, he was the first to use “autistic” as a diagnostic label. Yes, the term “autism” had been in use since Eugene Bleuler coined it in 1908 (as I’ll come back to), and “autistic” had been passingly used as a descriptive term (e.g. by Sukharevra in 1925). But Asperger was the first to use it to refer to a specific kind of person (i.e. the autistic person) rather than as a general descriptive term attributable to anyone if they displayed autistic type traits. Moreover, he used it to refer to all autistics, not just those considered more able to function in line with social norms. In contrast to the very different classification “Asperger’s syndrome” (invented by Lorna Wing much later), Asperger was explicit in his 1944 paper that autism “occurs” at all levels of cognitive ability. In short, the use of the label “autistic” in the way it is increasingly being used, was the creation of Hans Asperger. So, using “autistic” is an endorsement of his framing, not a rejection of it.

The second thing to note is that, even non-withstanding the first point, the term “autism” itself was coined by a rabid eugenicist (who was also pretty racist and homophobic), Eugene Bleuler. For instance, here he is in 1924 promoting killing disabled people in order to stop his “race” deteriorating:

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And, before anyone tries to defend him by suggesting that this was just the prevailing view of his time, it wasn’t. In fact, more than a decade prior to the above quote, he had been lamenting the actually prevailing views of his time for forcing him to keep his patients alive:

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In fact, Bleuler, an incredibly influential psychiatrist (who also coined “schizophrenia”) was one of main reasons eugenics became a prevailing ideology. There were no Nazis pressuring him into this (as some argue may have been the case with Asperger); rather, he was the pressure.

What are we to make of all of this? On the one hand, again, I certainly do not want to defend keeping Asperger’s syndrome as a diagnostic label (I’m glad it is disappearing, for the reasons I gave above). And I also certainly do not want to tell people how they should identify.

But I do think we need more nuance on this issue. For, whatever Asperger did, and however bad it was, he was not an isolated case. Rather, if he was a eugenicist, then he was part of an ongoing eugenic tradition that has persisted from long before him, right up to the present day. With this in mind, airbrushing one or two specific individuals from history is far too simplistic (especially when it means the overnight enforced banning of various long-established disability identities).

What we do need is to develop more nuanced critical histories of neurodivergence; in order to both enhance our own empowerment in relation to the dark history of psychiatry, and to help combat the ongoing eugenicist programmes of today.