Autism Awareness Day: ‘Asperger’s Syndrome can be a blessing’

Colin Armstrong
Colin Armstrong
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On Autism Awareness Day, C.D.C. ARMSTRONG talks about his experience of Asperger’s.

The term Asperger’s Syndrome is no longer one whose use is limited to psychologists and health professionals; it is part of popular culture.

The lead characters in two popular TV series this year, “Sherlock” and “The Bridge”, have been identified by the actors who play them, Benedict Cumberbatch and Sofia Helm, as having Asperger’s. But this portrayal of detectives with Asperger’s is a caricature.

Asperger’s Syndrome is a developmental disorder on the spectrum which runs from classic autism (characterised by severe learning difficulties) to Asperger’s.

People with Asperger’s tend to have average or even high intellectual ability. Their problems take other forms.

Michael Fitzgerald, a psychiatrist at Trinity, Dublin, says Asperger’s is marked by “social disfunction and idiosyncratic interests”. He has written that in those with the syndrome “some areas of the brain are hyper developed and others are underdeveloped, meaning that it brings both blessings and burdens”.

Those with Asperger’s have difficulties with social interaction; they often have poor motor control and restricted body language; they can find it hard to maintain eye contact; they usually possess interests to the point of obsession; they are generally individualistic and perfectionist and can find group work difficult; they are often sensitive to senses, noise and touch especially; they need structure and routine.

The syndrome was identified in the 1940s by the Viennese paediatrician Hans Asperger, a man who, according to Christopher Gillberg, displayed traits of the condition named after him. He died in 1980; a year later Lorna Wing first used the term Asperger’s Syndrome; twenty years ago it was recognised in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic Manual.

Perhaps only 36 individuals in 10,000 have the syndrome; nine out of ten are men. (It is thought that women with Asperger’s are better at disguising the traits). The syndrome may be more prevalent in areas such as information technology or academia.

The subtitle of one of Professor Fitzgerald’s books on Asperger’s is ‘Gift or Curse?’ Those with Asperger’s are often bullied, prone to depression and suicidal thoughts, often find it hard to obtain employment and are less likely to be married than most people.

But Asperger’s has been a blessing for the world. Prof Fitzgerald has explored the link between creativity and Asperger’s and the cognate condition, High Functioning Autism. He thinks the politician Enoch Powell probably had Asperger’s, as did the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein; the writers W.B. Yeats, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett; the composer Bela Bartok; the scientist Isaac Newton; and the mathematician Sir William Rowan Hamilton.

My interest in Asperger’s is not professional; my background is in history, not psychiatry. Seven years ago, aged 41, I was diagnosed as having Asperger’s; many now are diagnosed as children.

I can see now how Asperger’s has shaped my life. I suspect that the condition’s need for order has drawn me to 18th century music, to symmetrical architecture, to figurative art and to novels with a clear narrative structure.

But I can testify to the connection between Asperger’s and depression; I know what it is to be bullied, as a child and as an adult. I have seen (I now realise) the signs of the condition in many I have known.

I can think of a Cambridge historian whose life was blighted by Asperger’s. He was a King’s Scholar at Eton and a successful undergraduate before experiencing difficulties as a postgraduate. But he was made a fellow of the university’s oldest college. I first encountered him when he gave four lectures I attended as an undergraduate. He made no concessions to his audience. The first lecture was well attended; the second poorly; I was the only one at the third and fourth. Perhaps it was typical of him that he persisted in lecturing to one person; perhaps it was typical of me that I persisted in attending.

He was later sacked from a research position in America after taking a stand on a matter of principle. He became an archivist, a humbler position than his talents might have led him to expect. Asperger’s can give high abilities and remove the opportunities to use them.

Those who think they may have Asperger’s should seek advice. If they have been diagnosed should try to be more vocal; there is no shame in having Asperger’s — if anything, the reverse.

Perhaps in time the curse of Asperger’s will be lessened and the blessings increased.

• Educated at Portora Royal and Trinity College, Cambridge, Colin Armstrong wrote a history of the News Letter on its 275th birthday