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On Autism's Trail: Olmsted & Blaxill Meet Hans Asperger Jr.

Bench_side_view_2Greetings from Europe: On the trail of autism’s origins

By Mark Blaxill and Dan Olmsted

We’ve just arrived in London after several days in Vienna, doing research for our book on the natural history of autism. Our search took us to hospitals, pharmaceutical museums and the home and office of a certain Viennese psychiatrist named Sigmund Freud.

On Tuesday evening, we met Hans Asperger Jr. at our hotel and walked the grounds of Belvedere -- one of the grandest mansions in the world -- while we talked about his father’s discovery of a disorder that is now included on the autism spectrum. “My father always said: ‘I love the children,’” he told us. His father was a warm and loving father as well as a pediatrician who began seeing children with unusual behaviors starting in the 1930s; his interest was in how to give these children an opportunity for education and a happy adult life. Hans Jr. described his father reading classic Austrian literature to them as they sat in a circle around him, their restless behavior subsiding as they became engrossed.

Hans Jr. has four siblings, including two who are medical doctors -- one works with autistic children in Switzerland. He and two other siblings had careers in agriculture, perhaps influenced by their mother’s farm background. Unlike his sister who works with autistic children, Hans has chosen to stay close to home and build his career in Vienna.

Hans_aspergerVienna is a city of grandeur and ghosts. Before World War I, the Habsburgs presided over a far-flung empire, but when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo -- a restive province -- the events were set in motion that led to World War I and the empire’s dissolution. World War II destroyed many of the city’s grandest buildings, but many were meticulously restored, and the city glows at night with lit monuments and buildings. As we roamed the city, it was hard, as we toured the famed Vienna Opera House, not to see the shadow of Hitler attending Wagner’s operas with his childhood friend from Linz; or to imagine Freud’s earliest cases walking up the same broad steps we did at 19 Berggasse. Mark’s daughter Sydney helped with research and getting around the city, as well as photographing key documents and places.

Interestingly, three of the five categories included within the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual’s listing of Pervasive Developmental Disorders — Asperger’s, Rett’s, and childhood disintegrative disorder -- were first diagnosed here, and we spent a lot of time trying to figure out what it was about Vienna that seemed to make it a corollary to Baltimore, where child psychiatrist Leo Kanner first saw autistic children born in the 1930s. Kanner published his paper in 1943; Asperger’s was published just a year later. This was the middle of a world war and they had never corresponded.

Was this a coincidence? That seems to be the consensus of the mainstream medical community, but we have always doubted it. Our search for clues to the connection continues, but suffice it to say we made progress in Vienna.

We feel we’re sharing this journey with Age of Autism’s readers, whose support and enthusiasm has helped sustain our efforts. We’ll keep you posted on our travels and insights although of course it won’t all come together until we finish The Book – but stay tuned as we continue our research.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism and Mark Blaxill is Editor at Large.



From what I've learned "Leo Kanner" a fellow American was much more negative in his opinions towards "Aspies & Autistic's" than Ol' Hans was. This is indeed the truest irony of all. Considering that Hans Asperger was an officer in the German Wearmacht under Nazi Command........ That's history's ironies for you. The most unlikeliest of finding's and heroes come from the most unlikeliest of places and people!...............

For anyone interested, as there is not only a great deal of interest in "Japanese Manga and Anime" these days in general. But, an increased usage of Manga and Anime to help teach and treat Asperger's and Autism. There is a very well done series named "WITH THE LIGHT: RAISING AN AUTISTIC". That is about the raising and of an Autistic Boy and the frustrations that his parents have to suffer through.

Theresa Cedillo

Thank you Dan and Mark - absolutely fascinating! I very much look forward to your book and thank you for sharing your travels with us!


Theresa Wrangham

What a great story! Good luck to you both as you unravel the mystery. Will be interesting to see what environmental issues Germany was saddled with and how Hitler's solution may or may not have played into the senario.

Thanks for keeping us in the loop!


Riley's mom

Dan and Mark,
Thank you so much for your committment to finding ALL the answers. Good luck on your journey and don't drink too much German beer while you're over there!

John Stone

Thanks Gatagorra for the link. Whatever we may or may not learn about the specific origins of the autism epidemic from this adventure, it will serve well to remind people what ordinary people (and medical doctors) might do (or the lies they might tell themselves), for the alleged greater good, or just to keep their jobs.


Sorry, someone told me the link didn't work. Here's the paper on M.E. Sharpe by Rotzoll et al. entitled "The First National Socialist Extermination Crime: The T4 Program and Its Victims":

Click on "open full text"-- it should be free.

Also, a typo: I read on one link that Asperger had reviewed over four hundred children but there were only a few in the study.

It would certainly be interesting to see what these researchers may have unearthed about rates of aspergers, autism and other disorders during WWII. The Nazis apparently kept meticulous diagnostic records for their victims. From the team bio:
Maike Rotzoll, M.D., is an assistant at the Institute for History of Medicine, University of Heidelberg. Paul Richter, Ph.D., is a senior psychologist at the University of Heidelberg, Psychiatric Department. Petra Fuchs, Ph.D., is a historian of medicine and guest-fellow at the Institute for History of Medicine at the Charité Berlin (Campus Benjamin Franklin). Annette Hinz-Wessels, Ph.D. is a research fellow at the Institute for History of Medicine at the Charité Berlin. Sascha Topp, M.A., is a scientific employee at the Institute for History of Medicine, University of Gießen. Gerrit Hohendorf, M.D., is an assistant at the Institute for History and Ethics of Medicine, Technical University of Munich and a scientific employee at the Institute for History of Medicine, University of Gießen.


From "across the pond":- If clever American scientists in the 1930s were developing pesticides for use on grasslands/arable areas/forests/whatever, then what were the clever German scientists doing in that era? What happened to the children (born in the 1930s) of those clever German scientists? Were the Germans using pesticides (if so, what?) on the many coniferous trees of the Black Forest? I'm sorry I neither speak nor read German. Good luck.


More on the T4 program-- it appears that Hans Asperger's career may have brushed with it. I ran accross some unsubstantiated buzz on the web that Aspergers may have been in some senses the "Schindler" of children with Aspergers. I hope that this isn't true because it could mean he would have been involved in selection or "triage" and the children (he studied over 400 aspergers subjects though documented only a few in his paper) he did not designate as aspergers would likely have been exterminated.

I found this paper by M.E. Sharpe on T4 at the University Hospital at Leipzig (Asperger was first posted at the Leipzig University five years earlier-- I don't know what connection there is between the hospital and the school but one could assume they were connected). Excerpt:

"The Führer’s Chancellery, under the direction of Reich leader Phillip Bouhler,
answered requests and inquiries about euthanasia put directly to Hitler. In 1938
and 1939 several such requests from parents of severely handicapped children
were probably received. Among these, the “Knauer child case” achieved the status
of precedent or catalyst for what was to follow under the guise of euthanasia. In
the spring of 1939, after the deformed child had been examined in the Leipzig
University Hospital by Professor Werner Catel and given a bad prognosis, the
father wrote to Hitler, who personally studied the request and sent his personal
doctor, the surgeon Professor Karl Brandt, to the parents to look into the request
and, ultimately, to accede to it. The child was “put to sleep” in the Leipzig University
Hospital by Werner Catel in July 1939 [5, pp. 8–9]. According to testimony of
those involved at postwar trials, this first case personally adjudicated by Hitler was exceptionally significant for both the launch of child euthanasia and for the systematic selection-for-killing of institutionalized patients."

There seems to be a blackout in information between the time that Asperger was posted at Leipzig and when he became a "soldier in Croatia" as is claimed on several sites. It will be interesting to find out when he gathered the material for his research and how; what brushes he may have had with the T4 program; what-- if any-- evidence there is on how he felt about it; whether he worded his paper in such a way as to argue the "utilitarian value" of children with Aspergers in order to save some from extermination; whether this involved him in triage.


Mark and Dan,

What an incredible journey you are on! I cannot wait to hear about your findings and the path you took to get there.

Thank you both for all you do!


I found and then lost a link to a site which reported that disabilities among children were on the rise in Germany prior to WWII. The inference is that the program of gassing and poisoning disabled children in Germany-- which preceded and was the inspiration for the Final Solution and was instigated by the medical profession on its own authority, not initially by the Nazis-- was set off, in part, by an alarming spike in childhood disorders. This may very well be only relative to the environment of intolerance and economic distress.

I can't confirm this but, ever since, I've kept an eye out for information about the use of mercury-laced teething powders, calomel or other environmental causes of birth defects in Germany and surrounding regions which may have been prevalent in the era prior to the rise of Hitler. I've asked for information on vaccinations in the period, but I don't have the liberty to dig that deep.

It sounds like both of you are on the trail and I can't wait to hear what you uncover. Maybe you can make a stop at the site of the Hadamar clinic.


How fascinating.
It would be interesting to study the environmental history of that era.
What kind of pesticides, vaccine trials and war debris may have been common.
That information may hold clues like the lining in Victorian hats.
Look forward to all that you find and the upcoming book.
I refuse to believe children are programmed genetically to just disintegrate.
There has to be a catalyst.
God Bless on your travels!


Thanks Mark and Dan for keeping us updated. I more than look forward to reading all that you find. Starting from the begining seems the most logical place to start and leave it to two of our heros to be the 1st ones to take this important journey of discovery.

*Our* Austrian Experience

"As we roamed the city, it was hard, as we toured the famed Vienna Opera House, not to see the shadow of Hitler attending Wagner’s operas with his childhood friend from Linz; or to imagine Freud’s earliest cases walking up the same broad steps we did at 19 Berggasse."

Is the city *dark* and forbidding? We flew Austrian Airlines once and my son threw a huge big manic tantrum that began on the plane and erupted into something demonic and fearful at the Vienna airport. He was nearly 3 years old and *everyone* was staring at us. He has had many tantrums both before and after that one, but there was something very odd about that one.

On the return trip we got in late for our connection and had to spend 25 hours on the airport floor. They refused to give us any accomodations at all even though we had a small child, the overall attitude was mean and cold. I have been to Europe before and we have never been treated like that elsewhere!!

I hated Vienna and Austria in general with the same passion as I now hate autism. I never knew why and today that became clear - it was the Aspergers' connection! Who knew.


Great story and wonderful pictures! Seeing the historical then and now correlations has got to be inspiring. Like a good mystery, you guys are on the trail. Thanks!

Kelli Ann Davis

"Guys please keep the words small, you know that the simple minded parents have tough time understanding many of the big technical words"

Too funny! Don't worry Tanner's Dad, yes Mark is "scary smart" as most of us know, but another one of his gifts is the ability to *relay* complicated information in a way that the average bear (me included) can understand it.

I'm sure he'll go out of his way to make sure this happens for The Book.

Tanners Dad

They say that to find the truth you must dig deep and start at the source. I just hope and pray that the evidence is still there. I know I will be one of the first in line to buy the book. Guys please keep the words small, you know that the simple minded parents have tough time understanding many of the big technical words:)

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