Revelations About Hans Asperger: Are We Now Going to Get Rid of the Asperger Label?


Carol Povey is the Director of the Centre for Autism at the National Autistic Society. The Centre aims to raise the standard of support and services for autistic people, while providing a supportive community for those with autism and their families. In light of recent news about Hans Asperger, she discusses how these discoveries may impact on people with Asperger’s and the service user communities. 

In the late 70s, Lorna Wing sat down with Hans Asperger in the tea room of the Maudsley Hospital in South London. They discussed whether the condition she had named “Asperger syndrome” was part of an autism spectrum, or was distinct enough to be thought of as a separate syndrome, with Wing believing the former. They agreed to disagree, but by all accounts had an amiable conversation. Little did she know that 50 years on, not only would the term have been put into and taken out of the diagnostic classification, but that autistic people would be discussing whether they wish to be identified with someone tainted by connection with the Nazi regime.

A recent paper by Herwig Czech, and forthcoming book by Edith Sheffer, have uncovered that rather than protecting the children in his care from the murderous regime, Asperger prioritized his career, and was part of the machinery that sent some children to their deaths at Am Spiegelgrund. Those children who were killed were identified as those who were deemed to be uneducatable, having “severe retardation”, or otherwise unable to contribute towards the new society envisioned by the Third Reich. 

This revelation has started a vibrant discussion within the autism community, and amongst professionals who use the term. Whilst recognizing the context in which Hans Asperger worked, many people feel that this new revelation should cause us to reconsider whether the term Asperger syndrome should be used at all. As one autistic commentator puts it: “with this scandal no one should be celebrating a person that has committed such evil acts.”

At the National Autistic Society, we want to listen to the community we serve to ensure we are reflecting the language people want to use about themselves. To this end, we asked people their thoughts on this through our social media channels.  The responses we received overwhelmingly expressed discomfort at using the term Asperger syndrome, and that they wanted the term to no longer be used. 
reflecting the language people want to use about themselves.

"Knowing what I know now of Hans' background I would not feel comfortable with my son receiving a diagnosis named after a person with these evil acts associated with him"

I have had other conversations with people who haven’t contributed to the social media discussions about this, who have said that, whilst despising his collusion, they are unconcerned about using the term Asperger syndrome. They feel that the discussion about language deflects from the really important topics of ensuring autistic people experience better opportunities in areas such as employment, education and fairness in the criminal justice system. 

However, I believe language is powerful.  It frames our thinking, and is always changing. Words which were commonplace in my childhood are now effectively unused, and new words and concepts have come into use. 

The charity has been asked: Are we now going to get rid of the Asperger label?

We will be continuing our dialogue with autistic people, and their families, to ensure we reflect the conversations which are taking place across the country on this, and that this spurs us on to better support and appreciate the challenges and gifts of people across the whole autistic spectrum.  Chris Pike, one of the autistic professionals who works at the National Autistic Society, sums it up perfectly in the following statement:

“Recent revelations about Hans Asperger teach us yet more terrifying things from a very terrifying period of our history – when disabled people, along with so many other marginalised people, were so horrendously mistreated, attacked and killed. Our responsibility is to learn from this history, and to ensure that today, we ensure we treat all autistic people with the respect and value we deserve."  

 Discover further Real World Impact discussions at www.emeraldgrouppublishing.com/realworldimpact.htm


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