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asperger's syndrome information and features

         

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Introduction
Looking Back at the Past
Religious Lifestyles
Art and Music
The Industrial Revolution
Science and Technology
Crime and Madness
Kanner and Asperger
Lorna Wing
Words and Labels
Conclusion
Introduction

What follows is my informal look at the history of autism.

Autism as a classification did not exist until the middle of the twentieth century, but something doesn't just suddenly start to exist because you invent a name for it.  As far as we know, autistic people have always existed among human populations. We can only speculate upon what our role has been in the history of humanity, but I feel it is a speculation worth making.

There is nothing scientific about looking back at the past and trying to reinterpret it using modern values and notions. I am the first to admit it is shaky ground at best. I don't do this on a whim. I do it to provoke thought in others. We can't live as if modern society exists in this bubble detached from the past because it doesn't.

Modern society looks at people with Asperger syndrome as if we are a problem to be eradicated... an infestation of vermin in it's uniform, globalised, normative perfection. The ease and convenience of judging situations only in relation to the present has lead to people no longer appreciating that there are different ways to see things... different ways to live. Diversity isn't a problem... it's essential. We would not be where we are now without it.

Looking Back at the Past

In smaller communities such as existed in the past, it wasn't as easy to make sweeping generalisations about whole groups of people as it is today. Everyone would have been an individual, and whatever traits were passed down genetically would be a familiar repeating theme among any given group, and would have probably been seen as quite a normal part of the groups diversity of characters and skills.

Children would have been raised by elders and siblings, and would have had fewer peers to be outnumbered by. The way we herd our children into schools today and endlessly compare them to each other and encourage them to do the same creates a nightmare scenario for anyone who doesn't fit the current standard of 'normal', but in the past those same types of people may never of had any problem like that to deal with. They would have been judged and valued on their own merits, not scored in relation to others using a system biased against them as we have today.

Then, as now, no doubt there were those who were mocked and teased for not fitting in with the social life of the group or for pursuing interests that others saw no value or purpose in, but some must have also achieved status and influence through whatever gifts and abilities they had.

Just looking at the perfection and eye for details in historical monuments and architecture always reminds me that at times in the past whole civilisations must have bought into the obsessions and passions of a few individuals, and in fact their culture and economy may have thrived and even depended on it.

Religious Lifestyles

In many ancient cultures, reading and writing, even where they existed, were not as favoured as much by the wise as rote memorisation, which for sacred religious reasons could not deviate from the original even by as much as one word. Some of these ancient texts, like the Rig Veda of India, are known to run to hundreds of thousands of words, yet it is common knowledge that they survived in oral form for many, many generations before ever being written down. The ability to memorise like this with ease is one of the savant skills associated with autism, and in societies that valued such things it is not hard to imagine that a person lacking ability in many other respects might be considered special and even holy for possessing a good memory.

Many autistic characteristics are not at all dissimilar to devoted religious lifestyles, for example, seeking solitude, vows of silence, non materialistic values, lack of personal relationships, repetitive chanting, daily following of rituals, as well as the memorisation or careful copying of religious texts. I am not suggesting in any way that all people who lived these lifestyles were autistic, but many autistic people would perhaps have been able to find their niche in society and even be respected and valued for being the people they were, possibly by being drawn to such communities and lifestyles. They may even have originally inspired such behaviours in others.

The historian Horace Dewey proposed that at least some of the holy fools of Russia may have been Autistic. In one case from the sixteenth century a boy who sought to avoid human contact and was put in the care of a local priest after being captured by peasants grew up to be known as the Blessed Simon of Jurev.

Art and Music

Lots of autistic people today are creative and have interests in art and music. There is no reason to believe this was not also the case in the past.

There have always been areas that have encouraged individuality and allowed for a certain amount of eccentricity, not too mention the notorious 'artistic temperament'. It also offers two things that few other careers do... the opportunity to indulge in your projects and hopefully a willing audience to share the fruits of your labour with.

Many great artists, composers, and writers have had autistic traits. In fact many of those who are most appreciated for their genius were also deeply troubled people with far from popular personalities, and not all have been as appreciated in their lifetimes as they were in retrospect.

The Industrial Revolution

The industrial revolution must have been a period of great opportunity for some people with autistic traits to have lived in. It must have been an inspirational time for those inclined towards invention and engineering. Many of the great thinkers and inventors of that time are described as having autistic traits.

The stereotype of the eccentric absent minded inventor of that era has become a bit of a joke, but the characterisation must have come from somewhere. There will always have been men who were totally obsessed with work and had no people skills or social life and only hung on to their jobs and positions by virtue of their talent and intelligence. Unable to care for themselves they would have been looked after by a dutiful wife or house keeper. It is more than likely that many of these people would be classed on the autistic spectrum if they were alive today. In fact there must still be people like that around now.

Science and Technology

The computer industry is said to have many people who could be diagnosed on the autistic spectrum working in it. Rates of Autism diagnosis in children are higher in areas where high tech. industries are prevalent and it is thought possible that mildly autistic parents could be passing on their autistic genes.

Some researchers have suggested that people with asperger syndrome process information and think in more 'computer like' ways than most people, and that combined with the occasional gift for logic or mathematics makes some of us quite talented in the field of computers. It is not inevitable though that having the right sort of brain for something makes you interested in it, so that assumption shouldn't be made.

The invention of the computer though has clearly changed the lives and destinies of a great many autistic people though and in a history of autism is a relevant event. In a time when we run the risk of becoming more isolated and marginalised than ever it allows us to connect with each other via the internet and find a community identity.

Crime and Madness

There are of course many people who would not have been able to find a productive role in society. One in five people on the autistic spectrum has a degree of retardation, and many others would be at least partially disabled by other associated conditions. Many more may have even just lacked education or opportunity.

Some would have been called 'natural fools' or 'idiots' or simply socially ostracised and considered strange or eccentric. Those who were least able may have been taken care of by their families and treated with compassion and tolerance by the community around them, but could also have been abandoned and left to wander the streets in poverty, possibly ending up in jail for doing things they didn't even know were wrong or couldn't help themselves from doing.

Children found abandoned in the wild who, once captured, were subsequently unable to learn to speak fluently or adapt to the ways of society, (such as the wild boy of Averynon from the 1790's or Genie from the late 20th century), may have had the difficulty they did because of being autistic. In fact that may have been why they were abandoned in the first place.

Some would have been presumed mad and locked away, hidden from view by those who were ashamed of them or feared them. Even in our so called civilised society of today autistic people have far from escaped this type of treatment. The misdiagnosis of schizophrenia has been common for the last hundred years and is still sadly happening today.

Studies of patients in the high security hospitals Broadmoor, Rampton, and Ashworth found that up to 5.3% of the inmates had an autism like disorder, more than five times higher than the occurrence among the rest of the population. Many have been misdiagnosed with schizophrenia. Because they do not have schizophrenia they do not appear to recover or respond to treatment so are kept in for longer. In some cases the inappropriate treatment may even have the been the cause of the behaviour that put them there. For example, Piers Bolduc was incarcerated after giving someone a flesh wound  with a penknife while on powerful drugs for schizophrenia that he should never have been prescribed. His was a high profile case because it was taken up by the media until he was eventually released, but not until after many years of unnecessary suffering and injustice.

Women on the autistic spectrum would likely have been more harshly judged than their male counterparts in the past also. In a lot of cases they would be expected to focus on being a homemaker or socialite and would have had few if any other career options. Showing an interest in subjects not considered suitable and not following the complex social rituals of female society could have resulted in condemnation and even punishment. Even as recently as during the last century one hears stories of women who were locked away in insane asylums for talking about sex or wanting to wear trousers, so it takes no great leap of the imagination to see how hard it would have been for women in less liberal and tolerant times.

Kanner and Asperger

Autism was first described by Leo Kanner in 1943, using case material from his clinic at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, USA. The children he studied had no real communication or language, performed repetitive tasks and disliked change. A year later in 1944, Hans Asperger, a paediatrician from Vienna, published a paper based on studies he had been doing at around the same time. The children he saw were capable of language and sometimes showed high intelligence, but at the same time did not participate in peer group activities and were likely to be teased or bullied. They seemed somehow detached from the world around them and some of them had undesirable habits. By coincidence he also used the word autistic to describe the children he saw, however, because his work was published in German it was largely ignored, appearing as it did at the end of the second world war.

Meanwhile, Kanner's Autism went on to become more widely known but until recent years was still largely misunderstood.

For a long time, people thought that the children Kanner had labelled were like this because they were deprived of social and emotional contact or had a neglectful mother who lacked warmth (one of the terms used was 'refrigerator mother'). It was thought that with therapy they could be reached and become healthy well adjusted children just like any others. It was not until the 50's and 60's that it was finally seen as having a neurological basis, at first thought to be the result of brain damage.

Approximately 75% of those with Kanner's autism are retarded (that is having an IQ less than 70), and because of this there are still many people who think that autism is just a type of retardation. Kanner syndrome though is far rarer than Asperger syndrome, and the vast majority of people on the autistic spectrum are of normal or high intelligence.

Lorna Wing

In the 1970's Lorna Wing, a London based epidemiologist observed how autistic traits could occur in varying degrees of severity, and saw a similarity to the symptoms described by Hans Asperger back in the 1940's. Her findings led to the notion of the autistic spectrum.

There could be as many as 60 Million people on the autistic spectrum worldwide.

In 1981 her findings were published in the journal of Psychological Medicine, and the 'syndrome' named after the Austrian doctor was born. Asperger's Syndrome didn't officially appear in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until 1994.

Gradually, over the course of the last twenty years, thanks to the media and the internet, public awareness of autism has increased a great deal, and not only are parents, teachers, and medical practitioners more aware of what to look for, many adults who have lived their whole lives without explanation for their differences are now coming forward for formal diagnosis, or even just diagnosing themselves.

Words and Labels

There is strong motivation to embrace the medical label. The alternatives are usually much worse... things like 'nerd', 'geek', 'anti-social', 'rude', 'loner', 'weirdo', 'miserable', or 'fool'.

So, on the one hand the medical label recognises people's differences and needs and is filled with the promise of one day allowing us to be accepted by society, understood and appreciated. On the other hand though the medical label begs for a cure. There are some researchers into the causes of autism make no secret of the fact that they hope to discover a pre-natal test that will allow parents to choose to have an abortion if their child is potentially autistic. People would have never considered for a moment aborting people currently classified as having Asperger syndrome until that label was invented. Such is the power of words.

There has been an explosion in the number of children being diagnosed with a degree of autism over the past ten years and there is much controversy as to what is causing it. It is most probably just the widening of the diagnostic criteria coupled with increased awareness, but some people think it might be because of environmental factors or vaccines.

During the last two decades the demands of education and employment have changed quite radically. It is no surprise to me that the diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorders goes up in line with societies demands. Now more than ever good social skills, conformity, and flexibility, give you a real edge in what is becoming an increasingly shallow and competitive society. Parents and teachers need to identify possible problems so they can be corrected or compensated for. No one wants to see their children disadvantaged. Is it any wonder that children are rushed to the doctors at the first sign they might not be what their parents and teachers think they should be?

Conclusion

In conclusion, it is clearly quite possible that there have always been people with autistic traits and that we were already quite familiar with the problems and benefits of that before a name was invented for it.

The last 60 years though have been a revolution and a revelation. There is an increased understanding of the human brain and more in the way of support and equal rights for people who are effectively disabled.

On the other hand however, the price we pay for support and tolerance is to be pitied and made to feel who we are is not good enough. Also, despite being people who clearly have something to offer, the system of education and employment excludes us more and more everyday, as by it's very nature it makes demands many of us find it hard to meet.

Ultimately however, I remain hopeful for the future.

Further reading available from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk

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