Asperger’s Syndrome

Hans AspergerAsperger’s Syndrome, or ”Asperger Disorder”, is a pervasive developmental disorder characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction and emotional reciprocity, and unusually focused or consistent patterns of behavior and interests. You will usually find these latter traits described in the literature as ”restricted and repetitive” rather than ”focused or consistent” but I want to avoid using language which defines all Aspie traits in negative terms. For this reason I’ll be referring to ”traits” rather than ”symptoms” and I’ll be using the term ”neurotypical” to denote people not on the autistic spectrum rather than the loaded term ”normal”; I also won’t be including any pictures of sad-looking kids with jigsaw puzzles.

Asperger’s Syndrome was first identified by Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger, director of the University Children’s Clinic in Vienna, in 1944 – the year after  another Austrian-born child psychiatrist, Leo Kanner, had independently identified classical autism (or ”Kannerian autism“) in the USA; neither was familiar with the other’s work due to the war and that same conflict is the reason why Asperger’s work remained largely unknown outside Germany until the 1980s.

Hans Asperger did not call the syndrome after himself, of course – doctors do not name conditions after themselves! – he called it ”autistic psychopathy” – which makes it sound a lot scarier than it actually is. Asperger was greatly influenced by the work of Eugen Bleuler (who coined the terms “schizophrenia“, “schizoid“, “autism“) and he regarded the condition as a form of infantile schizophrenia.

It was the English psychiatrist Lorna Wing who popularized the term “Asperger’s syndrome” in a 1981 when she translated Asperger’s work, and it was she who classified Asperger’s as part of the autistic spectrum; the first book on Asperger’s syndrome written in English was Uta Frith‘s Autism and Asperger Syndrome published in 1991. Frith presented Horizon: Living With Autism on BBC2 earlier this month.

DSM-5AS became a distinct medical diagnosis in 1992 when it was included in the 10th edition of the World Health Organization’s diagnostic manual, International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10); it was added to the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) in 1994. Asperger’s was controversially eliminated as a distinct diagnosis in DSM-5 last year and bracketed with autism, High-Functioning Autism (HFA), Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS), childhood disintegrative disorder and Rett syndrome under the general heading of ”autistic spectrum disorders”.

Asperger’s differs from other autism spectrum disorders by its relative preservation of linguistic and cognitive development but speech is often atypical and marked by unusual prosody (rhythmstress and intonation). Speech may be overly-formal, idiosyncratic, tangential or circumstantial, and may include neologisms and metaphors apparently meaningful to the speaker alone; or the AS individual may even display selective mutism.

It’s a myth that people with Asperger’s are all exceptionally intelligent or have photographic memories or savant abilities: autistic prodigies like Daniel Tammet are the exception rather than the rule. Most people undergoing an Asperger’s assessment will have I.Q. tests, however, if only to rule out other conditions: I had the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS-IV) test which measured my Verbal Comprehension Index (VCI), my Perceptual Reasoning Index (PRI), my Working Memory Index (WMI) and my Processing Speed Index (PSI). This gave my Full Scale IQ (FSIQ), based on the total combined performance of the VCI, PRI, WMI and PSI, and my General Ability Index (GAI), based only on the six subtests comprising the VCI and PRI. (I’m not telling you my scores.)

People with Asperger’s often present with a lack of affect, or emotional display, in terms of facial expressions, hand gestures, tone of voice, laughter or tears. This often gives the impression of coldness or aloofness.

Two related traits often found in people with AS are ”alexithymia” (the inability to identify and interpret emotional signals in oneself or others) and ”mind-blindness” (the inability to predict the beliefs and intentions of others). For some autism specialists such as Simon Baron-Cohen (a former student of Uta Frith) Asperger’s has been characterised as primarily an ”empathy disorder”: I’ll be examining this theory in great detail later as it is this which most directly relates Blade Runner and Asperger’s.

There are, however, traits that the ”mind-blindness” hypothesis cannot easily account for such as the stereotypical behaviour already mentioned and a number of common sensory and motor issues: unusually sensitivity or insensitive to sound, light, and other stimuli; as well as physical clumsiness, problems with proprioception (sensation of body position) and apraxia (motor planning disorder). There are also more alarming features such as somatic self-stimulation (or ”stimming”) which can easily be mistaken for self-harm, and ”meltdowns” (which can resemble tantrums or panic attacks). None of these are essential for a diagnosis, however.

It is important to remember that autistic traits are on a spectrum: traits manifest themselves to a different degree in each autistic individual. Most people with Asperger’s are fully capable of functioning in society and all people with HFA are (that’s what ”high-functioning” means); many pass for neurotypical and many more even go undiagnosed. In recent years many Aspies have adopted the social model of disability and have argued that Asperger’s should be regarded as a different cognitive style rather than a ”disability” as such; from this neurodiversity movement has emerged, with the term neurotypical (abbreviated NT) used to denote those not on the autistic spectrum in preference to the more loaded term ”normal”.

There is no blood test or brain scan that can diagnose Asperger’s: assessment involves a multidisciplinary team and includes neurological and genetic assessment, as well as tests for cognition, psychomotor function, verbal and nonverbal strengths and weaknesses, style of learning, and skills for independent living. Common tests include the Asperger Syndrome Diagnostic Scale (ASDS), Autism Spectrum Screening Questionnaire (ASSQ), Childhood Asperger Syndrome Test (CAST), Gilliam Asperger’s Disorder Scale (GADS), Diagnostic Interview for Social and Communication Disorders (DISCO), Krug Asperger’s Disorder Index (KADI), and the Autism Spectrum Quotient. I was diagnosed as an adult. My assessment took 18 weeks.

Autism & The Media

A number of high profile people have spoken openly about having Asperger’s including electronic music pioneer Gary Numan; others include Nobel Laureate Vernon L. Smith, actors Paddy Considine and Dan Ackroyd – and Blade Runner actress Daryl Hannah. Others on the autistic spectrum include author and autistic savant Daniel Tammet and food animal handling systems designer Temple Grandin, who was subject of the 2010 HBO biopic Temple Grandin starring Claire Danes. Grandin has written much on the subject of autism, most recently in The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum (with Richard Panek, 2013) which I will be reviewing soon. 

Aspergers in Literature 

Neither Mark Haddon‘s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003) or  Jonathan Safran Foer‘s and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005) explicitly state that their precocious young protagonists have Asperger’s but they are generally understood to have the condition.

Curious IncidentExtremely Loud

More text

Millennium 1The profile of Asperger’s was raised partly by the popularity of Stieg Larsson‘s Millennium trilogy, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2005), The Girl Who Played with Fire (2006) and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest (2007) who’s eponymous female hacker, Lisbeth Salander, is speculated to have Asperger’s.

Lisbeth is a young, androgynous, asocial, bisexually active punk with an eidetic (photographic) memory and a volatile temperament who works as an investigator for the Swedish security firm Milton Security. At the beginning of the first book she is a ward of the State having been found legally incompetent to care for herself.



Millennium 2Millennium 3

Iain Bank’s final novel, The Quarry (2013) is narrated by a teenager with Asperger’s who supports himself financially by trading virtual money he earns in an online computer game. Belinda Bower‘s Rubbernecker (2013) features a forensic examiner with Asperger’s.

The QuarryRubbernecker

Kathy Lette‘s semi-autobiographical novel The Boy Who Fell to Earth (2012) alludes to Walter Tevis’ 1961 sf novel The Man Who Fell to Earth and is based on her experience raising her Aspie son, Julius; both appeared in a recent documentary, Horizon: Living With Autism, where they were interviewed by Uta Frith. Graeme Simsion‘s The Rosie Project (2012) is a rom-com about an undiagnosed Aspie who sets out to find the perfect partner.

Boy Who FellRosie Project

Asperger’s on Film


Asperger’s on TV

Bob MelnikovSeveral notable fictional TV characters have been either explicitly identified as having Asperger’s Syndrome or else their portrayal hints at it; these include Bob Melnikov (Dmitry Chepovetsky) in ReGenesis (2004-08), Dr. Spencer Reid (Matthew Gray Gubler) in Criminal Minds (2005-Present), Temperance Brennan (Emily Deschanel) in Bones (2005-Present), Saga Noren (Sofia Helin) in The Bridge (2013-Present), the Alternative World Astrid Farnsworth (Jasika Nicole) in Fringe (2008-13), and Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) who describes himself as being on the spectrum ”close to Aspergers” in the first episode of NBC‘s TV series Hannibal (2013-Present).

All three current incarnations of Sherlock Holmes have strongly identifiable Aspie traits: Robert Downey, Jr. in Guy Ritchie‘s Steampunk Sherlock Holmes (2009) and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011), Benedict Cumberbatch in Steven Moffat & Mark GatissSherlock (2010-Present) and – most clearly –  Jonny Lee Miller in Robert Doherty‘s CBS show Elementary (2012-Present). Indeed, many have argued that the traits were present in by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle‘s original.

While Raymond Babbitt (Dustin Hoffman) in Rain Man is identified as having savant syndrome in the movie, Kim Peek, the person who inspired the character, more likely had F. G. Syndrome. The child protagonist from Jonathan Safran Foer‘s original novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005) is never identified as having Asperger’s (except in the blurb on the cover) but the film-makers researched Asperger’s for their adaptation.

It’s not all crime fighting and lab work however: an Aspie living a less glamorous but more typical life is Roy Cropper (David Neilson) in Coronation Street. Social misunderstandings, lack of tact and literal mindedness is often a source of humour in programmes that might otherwise be rather grim; more exaggerated Aspie characteristics have also given rise to a comic archetypes like Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) and Amy Farrah Fowler (Mayim Bialik) in The Big Bang Theory and Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi) in Community (created and scripted by Aspie Dan Harmon). Most of these are either positive or affectionate portrayals of high-functioning professionals – though only the underrated ReGenesis ever explored the condition in any depth. [4]

Asperger’s in Science Fiction 

Melnikov and Astrid Farnsworth appear in science fiction shows while Spencer Reid and Sheldon Cooper are science fiction fans; indeed there is a strong affinity between science fiction and Asperger’s that I will examine in a later post. Science fiction fans are often stereotyped as Aspies, and vise-versa, and people on the spectrum have often used sf metaphors to describe their own sense of alienation: the largest online Aspie community, for instance, is called Wrong Planet. This connection goes back at least as far as Bruno Bettelheim’s psychoanalytical casestudy “Joey: A ‘Mechanical Boy” (Scientific American # 200, March 1959) about an autistic boy whop saw himself as a robot.


DistressSpeed of Dark 10th

Several sf authors have dealt explicitly with Asperger’s in their work. Greg Egan’s hard sf novel Distress (1995) features a subplot about the Voluntary Autists Association who actively campaign against the ”curing” of autistics while  Elizabeth Moon‘s near future thriller Speed of Dark (2002) addresses similar issues from the point of view of an autistic scientist.

The metaphor of Martian/Autistic has been used by parents of autistics to describe their experiences: former Star Trek writer by David Gerrold, for instance, called the novelette based on the adoption of his autistic son The Martian Child (1995), while Kathy Lette, who’s son has Asperger’s – or ”Asparagus Syndrome” – alludes to Tevis’s novel in the title of her semi-autobiographical novel The Boy Who Fell to Earth (2012). Lette and her son Julian spoke about autism recently in Horizon: Living With Autism with Uta Frith. [5]

Martian ChildBoy who Fell to Earth

As popular as the Martian/autistic metaphor is the android/autistic metaphor.

Gary Numan’s ouvre incorporates much sf iconography, and his lyrics have been heavily influenced by J.G. Ballard, William S Burroughs and Philip K. Dick, as well as Ziggy Stardust era Bowie; Numan himself has been described as a ”Lonely Android” and his fans as ”Numanoids”. The similarity between the title of his album Replicas and the term for androids in Blade Runner is entirely co-incidental as the album came out first; however several of his albums use samples from Blade Runner and other sf movies and the track ”Time To Die” is based on Roy Batty’s soliloquy from Scott’s movie.

ReplicasTime To Die

Critics have often noticed the parallel between people with Asperger’s and artificial humans struggling with emotions and social cues in the human wo

  1. I’ll be looking at Gary Numan’s work soon when I explore the relationship between sf and pop music. Daryl Hannah had some success in the Eighties playing outsiders in other fantasy and sf movies including Splash (1984) and The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986) but starring roles dried up largely, she has suggested, because of directors were wary of working with an actress with Asperger’s: her career was revived with the role of  Elle Driver in Quentin Tarantino‘s Kill Bill (2003). Claire Danes currently stars as bipolar Homeland Security Agent Carrie Mathison in the Showtime series Homeland; she studied psychology and is married to Hugh Dancy, who played a man with Asperger’s in the romantic comedy Adam (2009); Dancy currently plays Will Graham in Hannibal (2013).
  2. Neilson’s wife taught children with special needs and persuaded him to play Roy as an Aspie although he was originally written as a generic weirdo. While Raymond Babbitt (Dustin Hoffman) in Rain Man is identified as having savant syndrome in the movie, Kim Peek, the person who inspired the character, more likely had F. G. Syndrome. The child protagonist from Jonathan Safran Foer‘s original novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005) is never identified as having Asperger’s (except in the blurb on the cover) but the film-makers researched Asperger’s for their adaptation.
  3. Lette’s son has Asperger’s.
  4. In case you are wondering, yes, he’s Borat‘s cousin. Interestingly Sacha Baron Cohen plays the character Inspector Gustave as an Aspie in Martin Scorsese‘s Hugo (2011)

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