My son, who is now six, was diagnosed with Asperger’s almost three years ago. By now I’m well-acquainted with the disorder’s tell-tale behaviors: the obsessive interest in arcane topics (lighting catalogs and floor plans, in our case), the extensive vocabulary, the need for less sleep than neuro-typical children, and so forth.
What I didn’t know about and never thought to look into is the history of autistic spectrum disorder. It was only recently – while writing my new novel, in which the protagonist’s five-year-old son is an “aspie” – that I began to research the genesis of a syndrome that is, and will remain, such an important focus of my life.
And I found a few surprises – 10, to be exact.
1. Until recently, autistic was synonymous with schizophrenic.
A derivation of autos, the Greek word for self, the term was coined in 1910 by the Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler, who wrote that a certain number of his patients exhibited an “autistic withdrawal of the patient to his fantasies, against which any influence from outside becomes an intolerable disturbance.”
2. Asperger’s has only been on the books for 30 years.
The syndrome was not named until 1981, when the term was coined by scientist Lorna Wing. It took another decade for Hans Asperger’s 1938 paper on “autistic psychopathics” to be translated into English. And it was not until 1994 that “Asperger’s syndrome” was added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV).
3. Asperger did not discover Asperger’s syndrome.
The disorder that now bears his name was first noted in 1926 in a research paper called “The Schizoid Personality of Childhood” by a neurologist’s assistant named Eva Sucharewa. But the paper was written 1) in Russian, 2) at the time of Stalin’s rise to power, and, 3) by a woman, so the groundbreaking findings were uniformly ignored.
4. Asperger’s school for autistic children was destroyed by stray Allied bombs in WWII.
After lobbying the Nazi brass to spare his so-called “little professors” from Dachau-style extermination, Asperger, with the aid of a nun, founded a school for “autistic psychopathic” children. A few months after opening, the place was destroyed, along with all of his early research, and the nun lost her life.
5. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, scientists believed that autism was caused by a lack of maternal empathy.
In 1967, after conducting a study in which he found that that mothers of autistic children show higher instances of stress and depression than mothers of neuro-typicals (duh), Bruno Bettelheim of the University of Chicago advanced the “refrigerator mother” theory, concluding that the stressed-out moms – whom he compared to concentration camp guards – must be the cause of autism. The world’s first and foremost child psychiatrist, Leo Kanner, agreed; autistic children, he remarked, are what happened when frigid mothers “defrost enough to produce a child.”
6. Autistics cannot reliably count piles of toothpicks.
This misconception probably derives from a case study of one of Kanner’s first autistic patients, Donald Triplett, a mathematical wiz-kid from Mississippi who, when pressured by his fellow teenagers to count the bricks of a nearby building, supplied an answer immediately. Half a century later, two reporters at The Atlantic discovered that Triplett hadn’t really counted the bricks, but merely spat out a large number at random. Why did he lie? “I just wanted for those boys to think well of me,” he told the reporters.
7. The real-life basis for Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man was not autistic.
Kim Peek, a Utah-born “megasavant,” had no corpus callosum connecting the two halves of his brain. Posthumously diagnosed with Opitz-Kaveggia syndrome, he was not an “autistic savant” as the film disingenuously claims.
8. One of the world’s foremost autism researchers is related to the guy who plays Borat.
It’s true: Simon Baron-Cohen, a professor of developmental psychopathology at Cambridge and the author of the “mindblindness” theory of autism, is Sacha Baron Cohen’s cousin.
9. Not everyone wants to “cure” autism.
There is a political divide in the community on this issue. Some non-profits, like Autism Speaks, are explicitly “dedicated to facilitating global research into the causes, treatments, and an eventual cure for autism.” Other groups oppose this line of thinking. Aspies for Freedom, for example, holds that “[p]art of the problem with the ‘autism as tragedy’ point of view is that it carries with it the idea that a person is somehow separable from autism, and that there is a ‘normal’ person trapped ‘behind’ the autism. Being autistic is something that influences every single element of who a person is : autism is a part of who we are. To ‘cure’ someone of autism would be to take away the person they are and replace them with someone else.” This promises to be a contentious debate, as the autism numbers continue to spike, and this generation of spectrum children reach adulthood.
10. Parents of autistic children are not more likely to split up.
Rest easy, moms and dads. That pesky statistic about the divorce rate being as high as 80 percent when a couple has an autistic child? It’s an urban – well, a suburban – myth.