Asperger and the Framing of Autism: His Legacy and Its Philosophical Commitments
Hans Asperger (1906–1980) is credited along with Leo Kanner (1894–1981) as one of the “discoverers” of autism. Asperger’s pioneering work was published in 1944 as a Habilitation, a second dissertation at the University of Vienna. Kanner’s work, on the other hand, was published a year earlier in 1943 in America at the Johns Hopkins clinic in Baltimore. Uta Frith notes while Kanner enjoyed wide success, Asperger remained relatively unknown, if not ignored. Indeed Asperger’s path breaking dissertation “‘Autistic Psychopathy’ in Childhood,” (Asperger 1991) was not translated into English until 1991 by Frith herself, some 50 years after the original German publication. It is a remarkable coincidence then that both described independently a type of troubled child that no one paid attention to prior to the label autistic. Both were in agreement regarding the difficulties in the children they studied: awkward social interactions, difficulties in communication, resistance to changes in routine, and a clear separation from schizophrenia patients. There is nonetheless, clear distinctions between the two. All in all Kanner’s study presents stereotypical portraits of the children as a means to identify a specific class of individuals. While Asperger, on the other hand, accented adults and children who were described as socially awkward, highly idiosyncratic individuals as they could have vast interest and knowledge in specialized, esoteric fields and yet have difficulty navigating the events of daily living. While Kanner’s career is well documented, Asperger’s influence and hence his legacy is still very much in the making as new documents have been uncover that were presumed lost due to the bombing of the Heipedagogik Station in Vienna where Asperger worked during World War II.
Asperger’s “Discovery” of Autism: Context & Legacy
Hans Asperger began his career working with children who displayed unique behaviors at the Heipedagogik Station in Vienna (Silberman 2015). The Heilpadagogik Station was a children’s health clinic founded in 1911 at the University of Vienna by Erwin Lazar. The clinic too was unique in that it brought together psychology, medicine, and progressive methods of teaching to children who were thought by their parents and teachers to be difficult to be around. The concept of “Heilpadagogik” means therapeutic education, and for Lazar the best therapy was of the type that fostered a community of mutual respect and appreciation between the clinic staff and the children. Rather than focusing on individual pathology, he believed in offering the children companionship where the children could feel at home. As such, the clinic’s approach was to observe the children throughout the day, when eating, at play, in class, etc., to gain a more comprehensive, holistic portrait of the child. The clinic then both observed the children in their daily interactions while offering a full schedule of courses in math, handwriting, history, geography, and field trips into the clinic’s garden. There was plenty of time for rest and “free time” to do as they pleased.
Of key importance is newly found document written by Joseph Michaels (Silberman 2015) who visited the clinic in the mid-1930s. Michaels notes that the Station’s staff did not use descriptive categories like “normal” and “abnormal” to describe the behaviors of the children as the staff felt they were theoretically unclear, and practically it is of no importance. He notes children were given maximum freedom of expression and the children learned at their own pace, while staff provided an assortment of toys, building block, cooking utensils, to play with. The children were free to let their imaginations track in a direction of self-interest, and while the children were activity engaged Asperger and his staff made careful qualitative descriptions of the child’s behavior. As Michael noted the clinic’s approach seemed, “more like art than science.”
In Vienna, Asperger worked with over 200 children at the Heilpadagogik Station. (see also, Feinstein 2010) At the station these children were described as socially awkward, intelligent, and finding unique ways to solve problems. As such, Asperger viewed the quirkiness of his students in a positive light and as something that should be treasured, not destroyed. He is quite clear in his study that these children exhibited “special achievements” and originality in thinking, as Asperger observes that their thoughts can be unusually rich. They are good at logical thinking, and the ability to abstract is particularly good.
Asperger called this special mode of thinking, “autistic intelligence” and felt such intelligence was undervalued in society. In his study he emphasizes, “Autistic children produce able original ideas,” inserting that they can only be original, and mechanical, rote learning is hard for them. Later in 1953 Asperger wrote, “It seems that for success in science and art a dash of autism is essential” (Silberman 2015). Indeed, for Asperger the autist’s ability to turn away from the everyday world, from the simply practical, provided them with mental space to rethink a subject with originality so as to create “new untrodden ways.”
Uta Frith (1991) points out, that he was a champion of the children he attended to, advocating for their recognition, pointing out they had much to offer society with aid from teachers who could provide a special type of education. She notes that he feared that teachers and other students often misunderstood these children and suggested that one needs a “dash of autism” to really be engaged to teach these children. Indeed, Asperger believed that the children he worked with displayed original thinking that was found in the sciences and that their introversion was due in part to their inability to learn by conventional means. While Asperger emphasized the strengths of these children, he neither romanticized nor idealized their impairments. Asperger was cautiously optimistic in his appraisal of the children as he felt that their detachment from the everyday, their capacity to get “lost in thought” resembled a scientists who becomes obsessed with a particular problem to solve, hence losing track of the time of day, or of those around him or her.
Indeed, the children Asperger described and the way in which he described the children in his study lead Lorna Wing in 1981 to suggest an “Asperger Syndrome” (Silberman 2015). Wing’s insight into Asperger’s study lead her a few years later to rethink autism reasoning that the phenomena described by Asperger was not symptomatic of an illness nor as a single, monolithic phenomena as Kanner suggested. Instead, Wing conceived of autism as being on a “spectrum,” a continuum of behaviors, dispositions, and intellectual capacity. That is, Wing argued for an incremental gradient for thinking about autism that would align with her interpretation of Asperger’s descriptions. This gradient would allow for a more nuanced notion of autism that could accommodate the idiosyncratic and eccentric child described by Asperger. Hence opening the door, so to speak, for greater recognition, as Asperger asserted earlier that the character traits described in his study could be found in the “normal” population. Through the efforts of Wing, Frith, and others, a separate strand of thinking about autism began to emerge, a strand that has roots in Asperger’s study.
Steven Silberman (2015) documents the evolution of Asperger’s framing of autism as an elastic concept, multidimensional in its attempt to bring together the materiality of the brain with its interaction with social world. Silberman claims that Asperger’s conception of autism is representative of a unique mode of thinking: neurodiversity. The term neurodiversity appears to be coined by Judy Singer, an Australian college student in the late 1990s. As Silberman points out Singer’s hope was that by honoring diversity, “neurological pluralism,” within the disability rights community it would become a rallying cry for political activism. It was during the 1980s– 1990s that autism authors appear on the literary scene, writing about their experience of autism and the challenges they faced both on the personal as well as the political levels of daily life. Works by Temple Grandlin, commentaries by Oliver Sacks, Donna Williams, and others helped to establish that autism was not a disease to be cured but rather a way of living and being in the world. As autistic authors began to speak out, it was clear that they sought to reverse the dominant conception of autism as an individual aberration by shifting in emphasis in the discussion as to how society will address the challenge of neurological diversity.
Interestingly, Silberman finds the origins of this call for autistic inclusion lodged within Hans Asperger’s notion that people with autistic traits have always existed within society. From Asperger’s perspective, the autistic traits he observed were always a part of the human condition. The problem is not about autistic uniqueness, rather it is over how society will provide inclusive environments that allow for and accept neurodiversity. With neurodiversity, Asperger’s legacy moves from the idiosyncratic conception to the pluralistic notion of autism that is highlighted by the autistic rights movements that utilize digital technology to organize and combine insights and energy to challenge ableism. One group, Wrong Planet (started by Alex Plank and Dan Glover, cited in Silberman 2015) argues that the point of their activism is to alleviate those with Asperger’s the societal pressure to conform and to utilize their uniqueness as a means to take part in and find their place in the world.
Silberman ends his study with a nod to Asperger, noting that in 1938 Asperger was somewhat prescient in insisting that the traits of autism are, “not at all rare.” And second, that autistic people have always been a part of human history, it is not a new phenomena – neurodiversity is an aspect of the human condition. The problem is rather that the ableist ideology continues to frame autism as an aberration, a unique disorder created within the context of contemporary capitalist society.
The challenge for autistic rights group, like Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN), has been assert their presence challenging ableist assertions that autism is a contemporary aberration with their motto, “Nothing about us, without us” (Silberman 2015). Asperger would certainly agree with this motto, as he considered the children he worked with at the Station, not as patients to be cured but rather as colleagues working together. For as Silberman points out, Asperger saw them “indispensable allies” in the development of pedagogy strategies that would be most appropriate and effective for them. Asperger viewed these children as both friends and colleagues, in short as members of a community of thinkers.
Hans Asperger and Disability Studies
While Frith and Wing were amongst the first researchers to bring Asperger’s study into the mainstream, social critics like Steve Silberman are filling in the gaps regarding Asperger’s place in the current thinking revolving around autism. It is also important to situate his framing of autism within the context of Disability Studies. Traditionally there are two competing models that stage contemporary Disability Studies, on the one hand the medical model and on the other the social model. The medical model focuses on the individual body and takes a biological orientation focusing on disability as an embodiment that requires medical intervention. The later, the social model is orientated towards the social and environmental factors that construct disability as a pathology, and hence requiring political interventions at the level of social justice to rectify the negative characterization of disability. The gap between these two models creates conceptually, a binary in thinking about disability: either disability resides in the biological, and medical, or the category of “disability” is a social construction constituted by and through dominant ableist ideologies. The former model frames disability as an aspect of “nature,” of our genetic makeup that has become aberrant and in need of medical attention. While the latter model focuses on the ways in which our very thinking about disability is framed, articulated through ableist discourses that ultimately oppress and marginalize those labeled disabled.
In an attempt to bridge the gap between these two models, one disability theorist Tobin Siebers (2011) advocates for a “theory of complex embodiment,” which draws on the feminist philosopher, Patricia Hill Collins notion of intersectionality. In his theorizing, Silbers attempts to bring into conversation the two dominant models by exploring the intersectionality of the material body with social representation. Siebers argues on the one hand that there is a need for a greater awareness of the materiality of the body, citing the chronic physical pain experienced by those with physical impairments. Simply to talk about oppressive ablest discourses does not alleviate chronic physical pain. And on the other hand, he affirms: (1) the necessity of critique as knowledge about ourselves and the assumptions held are always socially situated within a specific historic context, hence never neutral; (2) this knowledge embodies complex theories about one’s identity and social reality, hence a question of human “value” needs addressing; and (3) acknowledging the political reality that those labeled “disabled” are excluded, marginalized, and oppressed by the prevailing, ablest ideology of the time. As such, the very positionality of the excluded, the marginalized, becomes the focal point for critique of the dominant ableist ideology. For Siebers “disability” becomes an identity whereby the members of the disability community are recognized as members of society, members who have agency as they are producers of knowledge and actors for social change in their own right.
Finally, Siebers grounds his theory of complex embodiment, and hence Disability Studies, within a “realist” framework. That is, for disability theory to have teeth it must embrace both the concrete material realities of those with physical and mental impairments while actively working towards political change that advocates for a reframing of the discourse around disability that entails more inclusive social environments. Here realism is understood as neither positivistic assertion that reality can be understood unmediated by social representations (what you see is what you get) nor can reality be understood simply as a set of discursive claims unaffected by “real” objects, i.e., the materiality of the body, the brain, the physical world. Hence, Siebers proposes that both the material world and social representations push back on each other, producing the interplay of embodiment with the construction of a shared reality, whereby the materiality of the body and the social world are always in interaction with the construction of socially situated knowledge.
Thinking retrospectively, we can ask how Asperger’s framing of autism align with the realism of complex embodiment advocated by Siebers. In addressing this question we need to keep in mind, on the one hand, that Asperger never claimed to be a realist nor theorized about complex embodiment. While this is the case, it is one of the tasks of philosophy of education, on the other hand, to take the opportunity to speculate as to the conceptual moorings that hold together Asperger’s project by bringing it into conversation with a leading theorist.
Indeed, there is no easy fit between Asperger’s framing of autism and Siebers theory; however, circumstantial evidence suggests that Asperger’s framing can comfortably rest within a realist conception of disability. To suggest that Asperger was something of a realist demands, according to Siebers, that Asperger’s framing of autism satisfy the requirement that there is an acknowledgement of the “real,” not as unmediated reality, rather as understood in and through socially constituted concepts. That is, the “real” is never seen as it is (naïve realism), rather it is understood, mediated through concepts.
On this point, Uta Frith (1991) points out that Asperger was convinced that autism had a material base, and that there were organic and constitutional factors that were the causal roots to autism. In short, Asperger would agree with neuroscientist that in thinking about autism, the brain in its materiality matters. That problem for Asperger, however, was not that brains think differently rather it was society’s injunctions that insist on there being one “normal” brain that frames any neurodiversity as “abnormal.” For Asperger, diversity was not a problem, it simply exists. And this diversity as pertains to autism has always been a part of human history. Diversity as pertaining to autistic traits is not a pathological state to be cured. Hence for Asperger, as with Siebers, the problem falls into the hands of society.
To be sure, Asperger did not romanticize the impairments he described at the Station. Utilizing the medical concepts of his day, he was acutely aware of physical and mental limitations of the children. (Here we too need to not romanticize Asperger and keep in mind that the very terms employed were framed within the medical model, hence have a reactionary rather than liberating effect when read today.) Yet despite this, his efforts were aimed at acknowledging autistic uniqueness, and what they can contribute to society on their own terms.
Unfortunately his plea for acceptance of these children went unheard. Steve Silberman (2015) states that the children’s hospital became the primary children’s killing ward for all of Austria. Over a 5-year period, 789 children were murdered at the facility. Most of the children were diagnosed as “feebleminded,” “epileptic,” or “schizophrenic”– the three diagnoses that children were most likely to receive prior to Asperger’s usage of the term “autism.” Part of the Nazi eugenics program was to eliminate these children, as they were perceived as a burden on society. And Asperger? Silberman notes that Asperger refused to report his children to the Reich committee, and twice the Gestapo came to the clinic to arrest him. Twice his superior intervened to protect him!
As such, Asperger’s framing of autism was something more than a mere “discovery” of a “new illness” affecting “troubled children.” In an important sense, his work sought to “interrupt” Nazi eugenics. That is, Asperger was very aware of the current medical usage of the term autism (1991). Originally coined by Eugene Bleuler in 1919, it was associated with schizophrenia. Initially Asperger sought to separate autism from schizophrenia, which he did successfully. However, with the coming of the Nazis to Austria, his work took on yet another, nonmedical dimension: the term “autism” became a political category that gave recognition and status to the children he worked with.
Asperger did see these children as “special.” Yet within his context, “special” was not intended to signify a social classification; it signified uniqueness. Further, the term autism became a part of a political struggle – literally for the survival of the children at the Station – as the term “autism” sort to rename the children. In doing so, it brought them into the presence of others as valued members of their community at the Station. Indeed, prior to Asperger’s and his colleague’s recognition of autism as a valued trait, the children of the clinic were viewed by the Nazis as inferior, hence disposable.
In sum, when situated within Disability Studies, Asperger’s study provides a realist conception of autism: one that does acknowledge the materiality of the body as well as the social construction of knowledge situated within a concrete historic context, and a tacit political awareness necessary to challenge oppressive political ideologies and their egregious practices.
Implications for Education
Asperger’s interruption of the Nazis eugenics program has pedagogical implications with regards to educator’s efforts for more inclusive environments. Asperger was a realist. He framed autism from a realist orientation, affording the term with multiple, interlocking dimensions. Asperger initiates thinking about autism that can neither be reducible to the material brain nor to harmful social constructions. Instead, Asperger initiates thinking about autism as a complex embodiment that is a part of human diversity. He tacitly urges us to think of inclusiveness in Gert Biesta’s terms, as allowing for the “incalculable” (Biesta 2010).That is, to include that which cannot be known in advance, hence an inclusion that has potentiality to transform the existing order. For Asperger, autistic traits were always a part of the human story, yet remained relegated to the margins of society, hence undervalued. His legacy aims at affording the children the space of plurality whereby diversity flourishes alongside our concerns for social justice. Indeed, his legacy highlights the primacy of moral responsibility and the obligation for the educator to guarantee the safety of our future generations.
- Asperger, H. (1991). ‘Autistic psychopathy’ in childhood. In U. Frith (Ed.), Autism and asperger syndrome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
- Biesta, G. J. J. (2010). Good education in an age of measurement. Boulder: Paradigm Press.Google Scholar
- Siebers, T. (2011). Disability theory. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.Google Scholar
- Silberman, S. (2015). NeuroTribes: The legacy of autism…. New York: Penguin House.Google Scholar