wasn’t that long ago that not many people had heard of Asperger’s. Whilst the debilitating effects of severe autism were understood from the 1950’s onwards, it wasn’t until Lorna Wing began her work in the 1980’s that Asperger syndrome became a label which could be used to explain and shed light on a group of children, and later adults with certain stereotypical behaviours. Unlike their peers with Autism, people with Asperger’s combine at least average intelligence with a high verbal ability making them “harder to spot” in the educational environment, which is generally the location where moderate or mild learning difficulties in a child become noticeable.
Asperger’s is a syndrome, which means that there are a collection of “symptoms” which a person may or may not noticeably have. It is perhaps helpful to offer a definition of syndrome. A syndrome is a collection of signs and symptoms which occur together and are characteristic of a condition, usually a medical condition. In the case of a syndrome a person with the condition does not usually have to have all the same symptoms in the same way. In terms of diagnosis certain symptoms are present but not all. For example, in Asperger syndrome not everyone is hypersensitive to sounds or likes the same thing.
As Claire Sainsbury humorously recorded in her autobiography. While not all people who have, Asperger’s are trains spotters, all train spotters have Asperger’s. According to Tony Attwood [i]
Asperger’s can be defined as:
“A lack of social understanding, limited ability to have reciprocal conversation and an intense interest in a particular subject area”
Stereotypically a male with Asperger’s will have a narrowness of interest. Now from time to time, most people can become obsessed with something, be it a ‘phone, place or even a celebrity. In most cases the obsession fades as we move on to the next thing of interest. The difference is person or child with Asperger’s does not and their focus is so intense it may block out all else. In all but a few cases these obsessions are “things” rather than people and lack the social cache which a shared obsession might have e.g. for example obsessive knowledge about a steam engine such as the Nigel Greasley. This is however, less true of females with Asperger’s who tend to be more socially adept and able to share and take interest in other’s interests. They think deeply and are more likely to be labelled as “spiritual” or “philosophical” than their male counterparts who will develop a singular and focussed expertise in their chosen field, be it trains, the value of Pi, dates or ornithology. Sometimes obsessions can lead to negative consequences as they did for Gary McKinnon, a hacker who broke into the US defence systems mainframe because he was trying to find evidence of UFO’s and what he believed was free energy. The USA wanted to extradite him and put him in prison. He won. But not everyone has been so lucky.
Reciprocal conversational skills are also a weakness. The Naturalist Chris Packham, spotting his own Asperger tendencies trained himself to make eye contact with his peers, thus lessening the impact of his condition on others. Poor reading of non-verbal communication plus literal mindedness put an Asperger’s person at a disadvantage in conversation. It is certainly not advisable to tell them to “pull their socks up” as a cure for laziness and for heaven’s sake, don’t ask a person with Asperger’s if you bum looks big in anything unless you want the truth!
The third aspect of the triad of difficulties relate to handling the social world. The autistic savant Daniel Tammet can remember Pi to 20,000 decimal places but can only recognise faces and emotions as well as an average 6 year old. In the novel: “A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”[ii] Mark Haddon’s 15-year-old hero, Christopher Boone has Asperger’s. He has exceptional mathematical ability, but needs a teaching assistant to help him make sense of the world, and very near the start of the book he hits a policeman for touching him. Although a work of fiction, this book gets inside the skin of what it means to have Asperger’s better than many an academic text.
Why learn about Asperger’s?
Well people with Asperger’s are fascinating and several of them have made remarkable contributions to society – Bill Gates and Alan Turing to name but two. Their different way of looking at the world is fascinating. Lastly, Asperger’s is the new cool. It isn’t just that Curious Incident has outsold many books and is whipping up a storm in the West End. Asperger heroes and heroines are popping up all over the place from the real-life rags to riches story of Susan Boyle to the sexy Saga Noren in the Scandi noir drama “The Bridge”. Plus well-crafted and beloved creations such as Cumberbatch’s take on Sherlock Holmes and Jim Parsons’ Sheldon Cooper are regularly invading our homes. That, combines with the wealth of opportunities for working in the field should be sufficient reason, go on, what are you waiting for?
[ii]Haddon M: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time Pub Vintage; Reprint edition (1 April 2004) ISBN-10: 0099450259