nazism, gender, and the social construction of autism

This is a profound argument. Read the whole thing.

Bearing the relationship between social norms and psychiatric medicalisation in mind, we might, then, similarly ask which norms led to autism, when disentangled from intellectual disability, being categorised as a distinct kind of human, in need of medical attention, in the first place. In other words, to locate the “cause” of autism arising as a distinct human kind, we need to ask not what its biological underpinnings are, but rather which social norms changed, and in what way, for those we now labelled as being “mildly” autistic or as having “Asperger’s syndrome” beginning to emerge as problematic – something that first happened briefly in Austria in the 1930s, and then again Britain, before the rest of the West, in the 1980s.

Turn, first, to 1930s Austria, where Dr Hans Asperger and colleagues began noticing a newly distinctive kind of person. Notably, it had long been the case for a long time that those autistic persons with more notable disabilities, for example profound intellectual disability, emerged as being problematic – it was just that they were thought of as, say, “feeble-minded” or “schizophrenic” rather than “autistic”. But around this time, and for the first time in history, various boys (they were always boys, back then) began being sent to clinics in the German-speaking world who we might now class as having “Asperger’s syndrome” or “high-functioning autism”.

When considering the social causes of the emergence of autism in 1930s Vienna, it is initially significant that it coincided with the rise of Hitler, the Nazi Party, and the German the occupation of Austria. On the one hand, as I have written about previously, the Nazi Party subscribed to a Social-Darwinist ideology that drove them to categorise and attempt to eliminate what they considered abnormal behaviours. This goes part way to explaining why divergent persons were increasingly pathologised. However, this alone doesn’t explain why those specific behaviours we now call autistic ended up being deemed abnormal, and only in boys, whilst other “male” behaviours – gambling, womanising, or lying – were not then seen as problematic.

As it turns, out, though, this may be explained by gender norms in Nazi Germany, which were intertwined with the drive to sterilise and exterminate the cognitively disabled. On the one hand, in Nazi ideology, the key role of men was to contribute to the state, and the key role of women was to reproduce. Thus, for those who were profoundly cognitively disabled, neither men nor women would be seen as fit to fulfil their gender roles, meaning they were exterminated. In turn, though, at a more subtle yet equally pervasive level, Nazi ideology also promoted a hyper-masculinity, whereby manliness was specifically associated with heroic group activities. The ideal traits associated with the “new man” were thus to develop a “soldier mentality”, join brotherly male dominated organisations such as the SS, and fight together in battles. Aside from this, there was also a huge patriarchal pressure for men to marry “hereditary fit” Aryan women, reproduce, and instil Nazi values into their children. Without exhibiting all these traits, males would not be considered “real” men, and would have fallen outside the realms of normality.

This, more than anything else, may account for why those boys who were previously considered “normal” were suddenly showing up everywhere as problematic. Given that those we now label as having “Asperger’s syndrome” are more in line with what we now think of as “geek” culture – solitary, lacking social attunement, and interested in mechanistic or philosophical pursuits – they would have fallen well outside the Nazi ideal of the “new man”. That is to say, they would neither have seemed particularly good at marrying, due to their purported problems in socialising, or falling in with this “solider mentality”, since they tend to be isolated, original thinkers, unlikely to be swept up in crowd madness. In short, as Dr Asperger noted in 1944, his autistic patients tended to ‘follow only their own wishes, interests and spontaneous impulses, without considering restrictions or prescriptions imposed from outside’ – traits which would have made them highly problematic from the inside viewpoint of the Nazi drive towards homogenous, hyper-masculine group mentality.