There was a great conversation on the topic published on the Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism, between Maxfield Sparrow and Steve Silberman. I’d read the earlier edition of Neurotribes, in which Asperger is still the hero.
Note that Robert Chapman saw the essence of the issue without the archival evidence:
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.
In a sense, the news about Asperger is just details.
I had a mindset of “Kanner bad, Asperger good” after reading Neurotribes, but it wasn’t important to me in the way described here by Sparrow:
I can’t remember when I first heard the Hans Asperger narrative, but for nearly as long as I can remember fellow Autistics shared the story: Dr. Asperger loved us and he wrote about the most “Nazi acceptable” of his patients and hid the others from view to save their lives—even to the point of allegedly burning his clinic records to protect the identities of diagnosed children. I believe that this Schindler-esque view of Asperger was (and still is) psychologically important to many Autistics. Aspies are no strangers to shabby treatment—from classmates, teachers, co-workers, even parents. There was something romantic about being named after a sort of father-figure savior who we believed saw our great value and protected us.
Narrative is such an interesting thing. I was always more interested in where autistic people ended up before “autism” was coined. It seemed obvious that there must have been places for them, some of them better than our current place. I come from a line of Lutheran pastors…
It so happens that Asperger named it first. I really wonder to what extent it’s a white people thing to be so distraught by the news that he was a Nazi. Most of the heroes from the last few hundred years I learned about in school did something important and also hated black people.
Surely everyone who’s upset is against the eugenic abortion of people with Down syndrome and would never tolerate a Republican in their life?
The willingness of clinicians to go along in the face of great evil is what made it possible for the Nazis to transform the Austrian medical establishment into an industry of death. If you weren’t risking your life by actively resisting, you became complicit in the horror that was created. That’s a heavy lesson for this historical moment, when government officials are routinely asked to ignore norms and ethics to fulfill various agendas.
While researching the Third Reich’s war of extermination against disabled people for “NeuroTribes,” I often found myself weeping at my computer thinking about the children who perished in places like Am Spiegelgrund. As a gay Jew and the son of Communists, I would have been condemned to death in a concentration camp several times over. When I sent a draft of my book to Shannon Rosa—who is one of the editors of Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism and the mother of Leo Rosa, the subject of the chapter called “The Boy Who Loves Green Straws”—she told me she was traumatized thinking of what would have happened to her son under the Nazi regime.
Traumatized! It’s important to put that in context:
Two-thirds of American millennials surveyed in a recent poll cannot identify what Auschwitz is, according to a study released on Holocaust Remembrance Day that found that knowledge of the genocide that killed 6 million Jews during World War II is not robust among American adults.
Twenty-two percent of millennials in the poll said they haven’t heard of the Holocaust or are not sure whether they’ve heard of it — twice the percentage of U.S. adults as a whole who said the same.
The study, conducted by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, interviewed 1,350 American adults in February and recruited by telephone and an online non-probability sample.
Asked to identify what Auschwitz is, 41 percent of respondents and 66 percent of millennials could not come up with a correct response identifying it as a concentration camp or extermination camp. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum says that at least 1.3 million people were deported to the camp, run by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland, from 1940 to 1945, and 1.1 million of them were killed. It was the largest concentration camp among many built by the Nazis during their campaign to wipe out the Jews and other groups.
And how many of them would know WTF I’m talking about if I say my great aunt survived Auschwitz for being a Jehovah’s Witness? She was one of the 144,000! I didn’t hear too many details as a kid, but I did meet her more than once and hear that praying to Jehovah really helped during the beatings. I’ve known since forever that both of my parents were things you could get killed for being. That my dad would’ve been lynched. That I would’ve been a slave. I worry about The Day They Come For Me today.
It’s a little bit amazing to me that just thinking about it happening to someone else counts as new and traumatizing. I can’t even imagine what it’s like to reach adulthood without knowing about the extremes of human cruelty. It’s telling that she identifies her child with the victims, but doesn’t identify herself with them.
I despair of finding people who understand what’s important in life. So many things about how to behave are obvious if you just think about the Holocaust enough. You see the patterns and then it’s horrifying to be part of them, so you try not to.
This is a tour de force from Sparrow:
Max, I’m curious how you believe autistics subvert the current social order?
Maxfield Sparrow: Thanks for asking that, Steve. I don’t get to talk about the lived experience of autism from this angle as often because I’m nervous about appearing too radical. I’m usually talking about how challenging life is for us, how often we are social outcasts, how the thin slice studies showed that people prejudge us harshly in just micro-seconds of seeing or hearing us (though we fare better than neurotypical subjects when people only see our written words), how many of us are homeless or unemployed. All of that is the flip side of this same subversive coin, though.
Our existence subverts the social order because we are different in ways that make people angry. People enjoy when celebrities are different. For example, Eddie Izzard became immensely popular by coming out as a transvestite, even wearing high heels, dresses, and make-up on stage. But he has that “osmotic” understanding of social communication with other neurotypicals that is so deeply valued that it is invisible. It’s like air: because we need to breathe to survive, we value an oxygenated environment so much that most people barely even think about breathing. When the air is bad or our access to it is cut off in some way, people become understandably distressed.
The same is true of the kind of social communication that does not come naturally to Autistics. Because we’re not on the same page and not following the “proper” scripts (yes, everyone has scripts, not just Autistic people) we are distressing to those around us. I have a hypothesis that people who don’t understand or appreciate us feel pain when they interact with us and we say and do unexpected or “inappropriate” things. That pain is what stirs classmates and teachers to bully us in childhood. Pain and confusion are what lead employers to fire us or reject us from the outset. Pain is the precursor to the shocking level of disgust many people direct at us.
Even Asperger noticed that people don’t seem to like us. Sheffer quotes him saying, “Nobody really likes these people,” and “The community rejects them.” What makes us subversive is that we are human beings with as much right to be here as anyone else and we are asserting that right. We assert it individually by continuing to try to get an education, earn a living, and live our lives in the face of social oppression. And, more and more, we are asserting it collectively. We get louder and louder as we support one another and gain confidence. We are attracting allies, like you, and they are helping to get our message heard. It’s a message that people don’t want to hear because they know all the way down to their toenails that it is right to accept and support people who are different but…well…a lot of them genuinely dislike us. We aren’t conveniently disappearing into institutions or death or a “cure,” so our ongoing presence and growing demand for a seat at the table is disruptive to social order.
Our non-compliance is not intended to be rebellious. We simply do not comply with things that harm us. But since a great number of things that harm us are not harmful to most neurotypicals, we are viewed as untamed and in need of straightening up. Sheffer writes that Dr. Asperger called this non-compliant trait malicious, mean, and uncontrollable. She notes him describing Autistic children as having a “lack of respect for authority, the altogether lack of disciplinary understanding, and unfeeling malice.” That appears to be the majority opinion of us today as well. If we were not threatening to the social order in some way, there would not be therapies designed to control how we move our bodies and communicate.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not anti-therapy. I embrace therapies that help me with some of my Autistic co-occurring conditions like circadian rhythm disruption and digestive malfunction. I welcome treatments for epilepsy—a co-occurring condition found in 25% – 30% of Autistics—because I’ve seen how much suffering epilepsy brings. My late fiancé died from SUDEP, a fatal complication of epilepsy, and before his death I watched seizures shred his attempts at living a full life. What I am against are therapies to make us stop flapping our hands or spinning in circles. I am against forbidding children to use sign language or AAC devices to communicate when speech is difficult. I am against any therapy designed to make us look “normal” or “indistinguishable from our peers.” My peers are Autistic and I am just fine with looking and sounding like them.
One good thing that came out of reading Sheffer’s book was that it brought me a step closer to understanding and embracing Autistic Pride. I struggle with being okay about being Autistic and often Autistic Pride seems just a bridge too far. But seeing more clearly that we have always faced the barriers we face today has stirred some pride in being part of a people who survive against the odds. Seeing non-compliance pathologized by Nazi doctors makes me proud to belong to a people who resist oppression. And realizing that so much of what passes for therapy and accommodation today would be wholeheartedly embraced by Nazi doctors reminds me that the monsters who killed Autistic children 80 years ago were also human beings with families and friends and loving relationships. It reminds me that otherwise good people today could also be monsters.
At the Judge Rotenberg Center, Autistic people are being abused with electric shock. This is no different from Ivar Lovaas and his brutal autism “therapy” of the 1960s that you exposed in NeuroTribes. This is little different from monstrous Nazi experiments. Autistic people are subversive because we have protested the JRC and our allies have joined us. We are part of the rubber stopper that holds back a flask of evil. If the stopper gets knocked out, beware! It is a sign that oppression will soon come flooding into the world in an opened Pandora’s Box of misery that will leave no one untouched. We are marginalized canaries in a social coalmine and Rawlsian barometers of society’s morality. It is deeply subversive to live proudly despite being living embodiments of our culture’s long standing ethical failings.
Fuck yeah, all of that.
This point of Steve Silberman’s should never be forgotten in arguments with Autism Warrior Parents:
But it’s deeply sobering to note that, in many cases when Nazi clinicians referred a disabled child to a killing center, the parents were begging them to do it, because they had been so indoctrinated with the notion that disabled people represent an unfair burden on the state and a source of shame for families. There are echoes of that every time a politician bent on reducing taxes reduces a disabled person to the sum of their Medicaid payments.
There’s a tendency to see the barbaric conditions in the Austrian institutions that Czech and Sheffer describe as purely a product of the Nazi ethos, but several of the American institutions I describe in my book were equally barbaric and brutal, even if the staff didn’t practice euthanasia. My book describes Ivar Lovaas, who led the development of Applied Behavior Analysis for autism at the University of California in Los Angeles, subjecting kids to experimental “treatments” for autism that can only be called torture, zapping them with electrified floors or bombarding them with ear-splitting noise. If we think unimaginable cruelty toward autistic people ended with the Allies’ victory over Hitler, we’re fooling ourselves.
I admire Sheffer’s scholarly work on detailing what she calls Asperger’s “slide into complicity.” Now more than ever, we have to be aware of how violence against stigmatized people—whether it’s Jews, immigrants, people of color, or kids with autism—can quickly become institutionalized, just a part of how society works, “common sense.” Believe me, when I was writing “NeuroTribes,” I never thought I’d see Nazis in the news so soon.
There’s one last point about autistic identity where I’m not sure I agree:
Sometimes Autistics who have internalized the ableism and division that we hear every day from the world around us echo these divisive beliefs. I have met people who refer to themselves as “high-functioning autistics” because they are ashamed or afraid that if they just call themselves “autistic” they will be accused of lying or they will be mistaken for “somebody who might have to wear adult diapers and maybe a head-restraining device,” as one leader in the Asperger’s community said when he heard the DSM-5 was going to remove Asperger’s syndrome as a distinct diagnosis. Others have held on to the Asperger’s/Aspie identity despite it no longer being an official medical diagnosis.
While my second diagnosis was Asperger’s syndrome, I rejected the Asperger’s label many years before the DSM-5 came out and do not like being called an Aspie. I have written on several occasions, including in my book, “The ABCs of Autism Acceptance,” criticizing those who continue to identify as Aspies or having Asperger’s, accusing them of being divisive to the community. Under DSM-IV, I accepted those who continued to identify as Aspie, but once it was no longer a medical category, I felt that those who continued to use the Asperger’s label were clinging on to it because it was the equivalent of calling oneself a high-functioning autistic.
There is a phrase some people use: “Aspie Supremacist,” meant to describe the sort of person who feels that having Asperger’s makes them the next step in human evolution, far superior to others. I went so far in my book as to paraphrase Martin Niemöller’s poem about persecution under the Nazi Regime, saying, “Then they oppressed those Autistics Who Needed Round the Clock Care and I did not speak up because I was able to live independently.” My intention was to shame those who used functioning labels of any kind (including the Aspie identity) to ignore the needs of some of our Autistic siblings while holding their own needs and self-image higher.
I am sorry now that I wrote those things. I still believe the Autistic community needs to remain unified. But I have no business shaming others for the name they use to communicate their autism. I am not, nor do I want to be, the identity police. Sheffer’s article and book made it clear that she is battling Asperger’s name because she is battling the notion of a full Autistic spectrum. She wouldn’t be the first to try to kick those of us who speak and live independently out of our diagnoses. With the information coming out about Asperger’s words and actions, she makes a strong case for removing his name from autism. Many people would like to see those of us who have been diagnosed with Dr. Asperger’s name removed from our autism diagnoses as well. They have decided we are “too high functioning” to be Autistic…
But the way I pointed out how the labels “Asperger’s syndrome” and “Aspie” were weapons when used as dog whistles for “high-functioning” ultimately made me part of the problem and reinforced the divisions we already experience from outside our Autistic community. Seeing Sheffer’s attack made me feel protective of my siblings who still identify as Aspies. I don’t like when we are overly medicalized and pathologized, so I should be happy to see people defending their identity even as the medical industry seeks to remove it from them.
When the chips are down, I will always join with my neurotribe. So I want to officially state that, while I still don’t personally want to be called an Aspie, I am ready to fight on behalf of my Autistic siblings who do connect with that identity—not as a euphemism for high functioning, but as a cultural marker of their understanding of themselves and the world we live in. No, you cannot take away the identity of thousands of Autistics! Asperger had deep flaws, but the identity that has grown around his name is valid and the people who identify with Asperger’s have the right to decide for themselves whether to keep his name or not.
This is exactly analogous to the issue of mulattos calling themselves “biracial” or “mixed” to convey “not like those other black people.”
The arguments for using the concept of an autism spectrum instead of declaring people who can speak early to be categorically different are the same whether or not “Asperger’s” was the original name. Since there aren’t scientific grounds for keeping Asperger’s, the grounds are social: they want it to be clear they’re not like those other autistic people.
The term “Aspie” per se doesn’t bother me. Again, it’s like mixed-race people: self-description will depend on social context. The problem is people maintaining the distinction in situations that call for autistic solidarity. The problem isn’t little “top 10 signs you’re an Aspie” videos. It’s self-hating Aspies.
Consider this comment in a Wrong Planet thread, from Spiderpig. The thread is about people not understanding what it’s like to be untouchable:
To me, it’s a constant reminder that my genes are not good enough to pass along, and this means I’d be hard-pressed to find a compelling reason why I still have any business being alive, since the oxygen and food I’m hogging could be better used by someone tougher, more successful in life, who didn’t need to be artificially kept alive at honest taxpayers’ expense, and with a real chance to attract a mate and reproduce, preferably long before they get as old as I am already.
Fuck that. That’s what happens when someone doesn’t have a political education and accepts the prevailing fascism. If such a person wants to distance themselves from “low-functioning” people as a result of these internalized biases, I don’t support it just because they’re also autistic. So is James Damore.