How do autistic inmates survive in prison?

autism : Fatal diagnoses

How many people today suffer from a mental disorder of the "autism spectrum", no one can say exactly. Since there is still no clear definition of the disease, the estimates vary between 0.1 and 1 percent of the population. The Austrian doctor Hans Asperger, who has been working at the Children's Clinic of the University of Vienna since 1931, further expanded the diagnosis of “autism”, originally developed in the inmates of prisons and homes in the 19th century, to include “autistic psychopathy”. It is known to this day as "Asperger's Syndrome" for certain subtypes of autism.

Stressful for the national community

The aim of the therapeutic educator Asperger was to prevent psychopaths "from burdening the national community with their antisocial and criminal acts." This is what he said in 1938, shortly after the "Anschluss" of Austria. While he had emphasized in earlier years that one had to carefully examine autistic children in order to separate the wheat from the chaff, the doctor adapted to the language of the new rulers after Austria was incorporated into the German Empire. And made a career.

Physically and mentally handicapped people could not satisfy the Nazis' image of man and the racial ideology. 70,000 people were murdered as "unworthy of life" as part of Action T4. The same fate could also happen to the mentally handicapped if they proved to be incapable of community. This is where Asperger came in. He was actually a curative teacher, but in hundreds of cases he certified that children were incurable and referred them to the youth welfare institution “Am Spiegelgrund”. There, the “Eradicating Measures” section, belonging to the “Hereditary and Racial Care” department of the Vienna Health Department, took care of them and made decisions about life and death. The American historian Edith Sheffer, herself the mother of an autistic child, calls the Nazi regime a “diagnostic regime” that “included death as a treatment option”. In her book "Asperger's Children", she vividly describes the terrible fate of the children who were at the mercy of Asperger's using a few selected individual cases, and shows the reader so vividly how the perfidious system of child detention centers worked.

Hundreds of children murdered

At least 789 children were murdered in the Am Spiegelgrund institution. While they were still alive, they were cruelly mistreated, tortured and used for medical experiments. After their death, their brains and cords were removed and kept for research purposes. The educational interventions the children were subjected to that were not to be killed also consisted of humiliation, food deprivation, beatings, electric shocks, and excruciatingly painful injections. The sadistic imagination of the senior doctors knew hardly any limits at that time. Most of the medics responsible for this regiment of horror were able to continue their careers after 1945. This is especially true for Heinrich Gross, who made the brain collection the starting point of his post-war career. A Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for the study of malformations of the nervous system was set up for the brutal murderer and for many years he was the leading Austrian forensic psychiatrist.

Asperger did not have any problems after 1945 either. He had held academic and state leadership positions in National Socialist Vienna and had become an accomplice in the implementation of the euthanasia program by referring countless children to the Spiegelgrund. But he never joined the NSDAP. That was an advantage in order to present oneself as an opponent of the regime in disguise. He also emphasized his roots in the Catholic faith, which should suggest a distance from the anti-church Nazi regime.

Diagnosis: a matter of interpretation

At the same time, he now judged the children who he attested to have autistic psychopathy much more benevolently. As before, he emphasized their lack of community skills, but often also attested that they were partially gifted despite “limited communication skills”. In this way Asperger succeeded in glorifying his role in the Nazi era. For a long time he was even considered a doctor who had saved the lives of many children through his diagnoses. That may actually have been the case in individual cases. However, the large number of cases in which he handed children over to death by referral and his involvement in establishing a principle of selection, which meant that children were not allowed to go on living because of their mental illnesses, are far more serious.

After Asperger's death in 1980, the term “Asperger's Syndrome” was established for “autistic psychopathy” and is still very common today - although it no longer exists as a medical diagnosis since the intensive research of the Viennese medical historian Herwig Czech into Asperger's deep involvement exposed the crimes of National Socialist euthanasia. Today the International Classification of Diseases published by the WHO speaks of autism spectrum disorders, between which the transitions are fluid. Individual subtypes, such as “Asperger's Syndrome”, are no longer differentiated.

While the life of perpetrators like Asperger and Gross went on without harm after the liberation of Vienna in April 1945, the martyrdom of children was far from over. The entire staff of the sanatorium “Am Steinhof”, to which Spiegelgrund belonged, was taken over.

Abused again and again

The case of a young girl whom Sheffer describes is particularly shocking. The girl was of Jewish descent and was probably therefore repeatedly abused so severely that she had to be repeatedly referred to the clinic to be nursed back to health.

Edith Sheffer has presented a meritorious study in which she vividly describes the terrible consequences the National Socialist ideology could have for defenseless children. The work is not entirely free of historiographical (and translation) errors, but that hardly detracts from its earnings. Sheffer can, and this is significant enough, claim to have finally brought the dark side of Asperger's work to light - an important contribution to the education about National Socialist euthanasia.

Edith Sheffer: Asperger's Children - The Birth of Autism in the “Third Reich”; Frankfurt / Main 2018, Campus Verlag, 356 pages, € 29.95

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