Saturday, April 16, 2011

Is Asperger's Syndrome the engine for human progress?

In 1944, Dr. Hans Asperger of Vienna published an account of symptoms he saw in some of his young patients. Some were mild and others severe, but the most typical symptoms were tendencies towards physical awkwardness and difficulty in dealing with others due to a lack of understanding of non-verbal cues, such as reading other people's facial expressions or body language.

These are just some the downsides of Asperger's Syndrome, as it is known today. The upside is a remarkable ability to concentrate on a topic that catches their interest. While his paper was first published during WW II, it was not translated into English until 1991, some ten years after Dr. Lorna Wing popularized the term in the English speaking medical community. Asperger's syndrome is now recognized as being part of the autism spectrum and Dr. Wing's interest was due to having an autistic daughter.

The diagnosis exploded in popularity from the 1980s forward and it is assumed though not yet proven there is a genetic tendency. Asperger himself saw that many of his clumsy children also had clumsy fathers who showed some if not all the symptoms of his syndrome themselves.

Possibly the best known dramatic portrayal of a person with Asperger's Syndrome is Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. His character Raymond shows many of the traits of the syndrome, including his dislike at being touched, (many people with Asperger's can be touched, but only if you first get their permission), his obsessive interests and his remarkable ability at math.

Unlike the character in the movie, there are many people with Asperger's Syndrome who are not institutionalized, and high functioning Asperger's (HFA) can be very successful as researchers. Usually, they are not as successful as teachers, because it is common for people with Asperger's to assume that if they know something, everyone knows it and even if they overcome that, they intensely dislike have to repeat themselves.

And so we have this diagnosis, only known for about seventy years and only popularized in the past thirty, that describes a certain class of brilliant eccentrics. Many people have taken to historical diagnosis, putting forward their arguments that x had Asperger's or y showed symptoms. A lot of people who are putting this stuff forward don't seem to have read the literature very well. Doing a little browsing around the Internet, I have found claims of both Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson may have showed signs.

Both Franklin and Jefferson were horndogs. If you see a bright eccentric with a serious thing for the ladies, it's very likely that their eccentricity is not caused by this syndrome.

Two other names that pop up a lot are Newton and Einstein. Einstein didn't speak fluently until he was nine, but early developmental problems are NOT typical with Asperger's Syndrome. He did show the intense interest in problems that is a characteristic, sometimes working on a problem so hard he would forget to eat or sleep. But again, there are stories of Einstein getting busy with the ladies, and that would tend to be a counter indication.

Not everyone is convinced, but I find the data for Newton to be the strongest case of a historical character who may have Asperger's. He once wrote in a letter to a friend that he was proud he would die a virgin, and besides mathematics and physics, he had lifelong obsessions with alchemy and religion. He produced a proof that the Holy Trinity was impossible, but he declined to publish, seeing as back in his day, the Church of England was still putting heretics to death from time to time.

Another symptom mentioned in descriptions of Newton was his habit when in deep thought to rock back and forth uncontrollably, another very common behavior for people with the syndrome.

I read a book earlier this year by David Mamet titled Bambi Vs. Godzilla,and I have already written a blog post recommending that the book be avoided. Mamet hypothesizes that many of the early Jewish film directors had Asperger's because they were successful, highly focused and complete pains in the ass to work with, and that there is a prevalence of the syndrome in the Eastern European Ashkenazi community.

Once again, I call bullshit, which is an unpleasant but necessary task one must perform often when reading David Mamet's non-fiction.

People with Asperger's tend to love reading and dislike film and TV. So much of the visual arts is the understanding of non-verbal communication, and this is a skill at which even HFAs are notoriously bad.

Being intensely focused and an asshole does not mean automatically a diagnosis of Asperger's. Some people are just raised that way. A popular T-shirt slogan in the Asperger's community is "I have Asperger's. What's your excuse?"

So the short answer to my question about the syndrome being the engine of human progress is "probably not, with just a few large and remarkable exceptions".

Whew, that's lotsa 'splainin'. Glad it's a Saturday.


Lee said...

It seems to me that all the benefits of Asperger's are enjoyed by society as a whole whereas all of the disadvantages are suffered by the individual people who have Asperger's.

Matty Boy said...

Hi, Lee, thanks for stopping by. I would include the family and friends of people with Asperger's as among those who suffer.

Because I'm a mathematician and we look for counter-examples at every turn, here's one. In Michael Lewis' book The Big Short, one of the small investors who bet against the sub-prime market discovered he had Asperger's only when his son diagnosed and the father noticed how many of the symptoms he also displayed.

The man in question made a fortune off of the misfortune of the world, so in this particular case the world suffered and the person with Asperger's thrived, at least financially.

Anonymous said...

Although Einstein spoke somewhat later than typical, and had some speech problems, he spoke long before the age of nine. In fact, he was a good student in those early years.

Matty Boy said...

Thanks, Anonymous. I read a citation but was not accurate. I'll change the post.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, appreciate it!

By the way, the character Raymond in "Rainman" actually had autism, not aspergers. A couple of the main differences between the two is that with aspergers there is not a language delay, and IQ is average or above average. As individuals get older, it may become harder to distinguish between the two. A clinical diagnosis requires detailed information about the person before the age of three, in order to make such distinctions. Of course, this is not possible with historical figures!

Thanks for an interesting post!