Hans Asperger III
Bill Long 12/7/07
Conclusions to "Autistic Psychopathology"
One of the exciting things about (re)reading Asperger in 2007 is that his conclusions (pp. 67-91) spring forth with freshness, insightfulness and, sometimes, strangeness. I use the last word because often, before an "orthodoxy" of any movement sets in, the writing patterns and observations of the original thinkers show how much the phenomenon and its understanding was still "in the air."
Let's hear his words.
"The autistic personality is highly distinctive despite wide individual differences...autistic individuals are distinguished from each other not only by the degree of contact disturbance and the degree of intellectual ability, but also by their personality and their special interests, which are often outstandingingly varied and original," (67).
Highly distinctive (i.e., recognizable) but varied. The way this is typically said in 2007 is as follows: "When you have met one person with autism, you have met one person with autism." I like the way Asperger phrases it better. He recognizes something that emphasized now: the early detection of autism:
"From the second year of life we find already the characteristic features which remain unmistakable and constant throughout the whole life-span," Ibid.
What are these features? In early childhood, they are difficulties in learning simple practical skills and in social adaptation. Once you have properly recognized these signs of an autistic individual, you can spot such children instantly (68).
The characteristic peculiar feature of autistic children is their "gaze." The typical child "drinks in" the world through the eyes, with eager scanning of all things, while the child with autism is different. "Glance does not meet glance as it does when unity of conversational contact is established," (69). Our typical way of speaking, where eye gaze constitutes a good part of social relationship, is totally absent from these individuals. The paucity of their facial and gestural expression is a concomitant of this. However much they might differ in details:
"they all have one thing in common: the language feels unnatural, often like a caricature, which provokes ridicule in the naive listener..autistic langauge is not directed to the addressee but is often spoken as if into empty space.." (70).
This subject is a relatively hot one today among autism researchers. To what extent is autism combined with mental retardation or low IQ scores? Asperger really doesn't weigh in specifically on this issue. His concern is to emphasize the that autistic learners are able to produce original ideas.
"Indeed, they can only be original, and mechanical learning is hard for them. They are simply not set to assimilate and learn an adult's knowledge," Id.
The more intellectually gifted of them have a "special creative attitude" towards language. In a word, they express their own experience in a "linguistically original form." They choose original and even strange-sounding words to get their point across. He gives some examples, which sound even better in German, but here is the English:
1. "I can't do this orally, only headily."
2. "My sleep today was long but thin."
3. "I don't like the blinding sun, nor the dark, but best I like the mottled shadow."
Behind the originality of language formulation stands the originality of experience. "Autistic children have the ability to see things and events around them from a new point of view..," (71). Often the child with autism has a fascination with strange things. One boy used all his money for strange chemical experiments; another became an expert on various kinds of poisons.
Two controversial, or otherwise not-much-attested, characteristics are his emphasis on a "rare maturity in taste in art" among some autistic children, as well as the autistic person's "ability to engage in a particular kind of introspection and to be a judge of character," (73). Not only have these two characteristics not been much confirmed, but the emphasis on the first may help explain Bettelheim's 1959 article on 'Joey' (next essay), which is, regardless of your view of Bettelheim, today considered one of the classics of early autism literature. But all of these things should not obscure what to Asperger was the "essential abnormality" in autism:
"a disturbance of the lively relationship with the whole environment," (74).
Though his portrait of autism may seem to be more positive than negative so far, he says, "Unfortunately, in the majority of cases the positive aspects of autism do not outweigh the negative ones," (74).
A Few Further Comments
On one occasion Asperger uses the word "savant" to characterize some of the children (75). But regardless of what he calls them, the refrain keeps appearing:
"The obsession to go his own way in all circumstances and the exclusive use of his own self-invented procedures can prevent the child from assimilating the calculation methods the school wishes to instill," (75).
And then, as almost as sort of sad afterthought, he says, "These children make life difficult for themselves," Ibid. I am sure that such a child would respond, "How else can I live?" They only want to attend to the things that are in their immediate horizon. He sums up his work:
"It has been my aim to show that the fundamental disorder of autistic individuals is the limitation of their social relationships," (77).
He doesn't finish his article without some ruminations about where autism actually comes from. He states:
"We want only to state briefly that over the course of ten years we have observed more than 200 children who all showed autism to a greater or lesser degree. We have been able to discern incipient traits in parents or relatives, in every single case where it was possible for us to make a closer acquaintance," (84).
It is almost as if the grandeur of a former genius still survives, but only in a rather eccentric form. And, since the phenomenon occurs almost exclusively in boys (according to his observation), he muses that
"the autistic personality is an extreme variant of male intelligence," 84.
You can see, and be grateful for the fact, that Asperger wrote before orthodoxy set in. That is why his account has such freshness...