Up Front 07/15

Since they are no longer with us, the dead have little use for our sympathy, but I can’t help feeling a bit sorry for Hans Asperger. The Austrian paediatrician, whose research in the 1940s highlighted similarities in unusual traits amongst children that he was studying, wrote his notes in German. So it wasn’t until after his death that another doctor translated them and later described the results as ‘Asperger’s Syndrome’. For the next thirty-odd years thousands of papers, articles, reports, documentaries and even films explored, analysed and tried to explain Asperger’s Syndrome. There were heated debates about the correct diagnostic criteria, arguments about the most common traits and often disagreement about diagnosis. Hundreds of books were written on the subject and eventually, in the 2013 edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-V), the term Asperger Syndrome was withdrawn as a distinct classification. The autism spectrum had become far too complex and it had also become clear that few people, children or adults, displaying traits that Asperger had identified, were likely to display all the traits. What had also become clear was the fact that referring to Asperger’s as a disability was missing some of the value of a brain that works slightly differently to others. Whilst there are many who suffer from totally debilitating aspergic traits, there are also thousands of others who muddle through life displaying attributes that mean they are simply branded as ‘difficult’ or ‘different’. Chatting recently to someone whose wife had written a very successful and funny book about their son who was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, I recalled that it had been just a year since Lorna Wing, who coined the phrase Asperger’s Syndrome, had died. Prior to her death she had been asked what she thought about the fact that the classification had been dropped from the DSM. She had agreed with the decision. ‘One of my favourite sayings is that nature never draws a line without smudging it’ she said. ‘We need to see each child as an individual.’ Sadly for Hans Asperger, he never got to see just how much was done in his name.