What’s in a name? The Nazi History of Hans Asperger | New York times article

I find myself suddenly not all that sorry that the diagnosis has been removed from the DSM-V in America.


In the postwar period, Asperger distanced himself from his Nazi-era work on autistic psychopathy. He turned to religious themes and social commentary about child rearing. He would probably have been a footnote in the history of autism research had it not been for Lorna Wing, a British psychiatrist who tracked down Asperger’s 1944 article on autistic psychopathy.

She thought it lent important context to the narrower definition of autism then in use, and by the early ’80s, “Asperger syndrome,” and the idea of a broader autism “spectrum,” had entered the medical lexicon.

In 1994, Asperger disorder was added to the American manual of mental disorders, where it remained until it was reclassified in 2013 as autism spectrum disorder. Yet Asperger syndrome is still an official diagnosis in most countries. And it is ubiquitous in popular culture, where “Aspergery” is too often invoked to describe general social awkwardness, a stereotype for classmates and co-workers that overshadows their individuality.

Does the man behind the name matter? To medical ethics, it does. Naming a disorder after someone is meant to credit and commend, and Asperger merited neither. His definition of “autistic psychopaths” is antithetical to understandings of autism today, and he sent dozens of children to their deaths.

Other conditions named after Nazi-era doctors who were involved in programs of extermination (like Reiter syndrome) now go by alternative labels (reactive arthritis). And medicine in general is moving toward more descriptive labels. Besides, the American Psychiatric Association has ruled that Asperger isn’t even a useful descriptor.

We should stop saying “Asperger.” It’s one way to honor the children killed in his name as well as those still labeled with it.

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