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History Guides - Lafayette

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Selected Books - Reviews

  • Labels are very much a part of our national consciousness in the United States. Edith Sheffer points out in her 2018 book Asperger's Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna that other societies have also felt drawn to labels. While it seems strange to think of something so accepted as autism through the lens of Nazism, she does a good job of pointing out the importance of recognizing where diagnoses originate. Historical context can explain a great deal about vocabulary and methods, which we might otherwise never consider. For example, Hans Asperger was very intent that his concept about of high functioning individuals be considered a separate idea. However, as time has passed, his original wording has been adjusted, and his connection to period concepts such as Gemüt has been removed. (Gemüt was a concept which, "within Nazi child psychiatry, came to signify the metaphysical capacity for social bonds" [19].) The book itself is not incredibly lengthy, but there are quotes from those who survived the child euthanasia centers, like Spiegelgrund. Children were sent to these centers for a variety of reasons, and a lack of Gemüt could be one of them. Overall, this is a book which would interest anyone who has a wish to study the nature of autism or its history as a diagnosis, as well as those who are studying the way the Nazi regime affected the medical profession in the areas it controlled. At the beginning her book, she writes "it is a cautionary tale in service of neurodiversity -- revealing the extent to which diagnoses can be shaped by social and political forces, how difficult those may be to perceive, and how hard they may be to combat" (16). She then reiterates this idea at the end by stating: "The history of Asperger and autism should underscore the ethics of respecting every child's mind, and treating those minds with care -- showing how a society can shape a diagnosis" (248).

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