In 1943, the University of Vienna was merely a shadow of itself – of the nearly two hundred senior members of the medical faculty, fewer than fifty remained. Some had been forced to flee the country, some were in exile, imprisoned in concentration camps or dead of suicide.
In the period of fanatic Nazism, of eradicating persons who are “life unworthy of life”, Hans Asperger stood firm and propounded his belief that autistic children are not “defects”.
In his thesis, “Autistic Psychopathy in Childhood, 1944”, he wrote:
“The example of autism shows particularly well how even abnormal personalities can be capable of development and adjustment. Possibilities of social integration which one would never have dreamt of may arise in the course of development. This knowledge determines our attitude towards complicated individuals of this and other types. It also gives us the right and the duty to speak out for these children with the whole force of our personality.”
On October 3, 1938, he gave the first public talk on autism in history, in a lecture hall filled with swastikas. He remarked:
“Today, let me not discuss the problem from the point of view of the people’s health, for then we would have to discuss the laws for the prevention of diseased genetic material; instead we will address it from the point of view of the abnormal children. How much can we do for these people? That shall be our question…Not everything that steps out of the line, and is thus ‘abnormal’, must necessarily be ‘inferior’.”
The gravity of his words hits one, when one takes into account the social and political context. His courage to stand alone in the face of colleagues who have lost their rationality and humanity, shows extraordinary strength of character. His fearlessness in conviction and compassion, should be written in history.
To find out more, read NeuroTribes.