Asperger’s Syndrome: Madness, Savantism, or Genius?
Dr. John Papazafiropoulos
June 11, 2012
Asperger’s Syndrome: Madness, Savantism or Genius?
Everyone knows, or has known, a person that could be described as a little “off”, “quirky”, or “eccentric”. That was the person who was socially inept, shy, studious, and may have had a stutter. They might have had an artistic talent, or may have seemed almost a “genius” in mathematics or science. More than likely, that person was considered a “geek” or “nerd”. That person may have had a mild form of high functioning autism called Asperger’s syndrome, and they might not have known it until recently. Asperger’s syndrome is “a neurological pervasive developmental disorder that is characterized by deficiencies in social and communication skills” (Myers, 2012). Research into Asperger’s syndrome suggests a tremendous interest in a link between genius and Asperger’s. Theories are flying about Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton, as well as modern day geniuses, having this disorder. The purpose of this paper is to review the history and recent literature on the relationship between Aspergers and savantism, as well as to provide an explanation of the rise in diagnoses of Asperger’s syndrome. The History of Asperger’s Syndrome
Almost every culture’s folklore tells stories of mythic “wild children” who were unable to speak, possessed unusual characteristics, such as “unresponsiveness, resistance to physical affection, unruly behavior, and had physical changes, such as rigidity and deformity” (Bumiller, 2008, p. 969). In the late 15th century, a story describing what may have been a severely autistic boy was included in the writings of the German monk, Martin Luther. The description Luther gave of the child was that he “was a soulless mass of flesh possessed by the devil” (“Autism Spectrum, 2008). This child, the well-known feral child Victor of Aveyron, was “found” and showed the same symptoms of what we now call autism. In the 1800s, the term “idiot savant” was used for these children. Almost 100 years later, Treffert suggested people with this condition be categorized as having “savant syndrome” or being “autistic” (2010, p. 17). The word “autism”, which means self, was coined by Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler, who used the term to describe signs of schizophrenia in children, although all of the characteristics he described are still viewed as typical of autism spectrum disorders (Veloso, 2012). In the early 1940s, two psychiatrists wrote about this mysterious syndrome; Leo Kanner, of Boston and Hans Asperger, of Austria. While living on two different continents, both Kanner and Asperger, seemingly simultaneously, wrote and published papers that described having witnessed the same behavior in children. Kanner called this new disorder Early Infantile Autism, which, later, had been changed to Kanner’s syndrome. Asperger himself is said to have had characteristics of the condition that would come to be named after him. As he wrote in his 1944 paper, the four children in his study had what he called “autistic psychopathy”, which means autism (self) psychopathy (personality disease), later termed autistic personality. Coates noted that these children were said to have had a “lack of empathy, little ability to form friends, one-sided conversations, clumsy movements and intense absorption in a special interest (usually in natural sciences, complex calculations or calendar calculating, according to Treffert, 2011). It was that absorption in a special interest that inspired Asperger to call those children his “little professors”, because of their “ability to talk about their favorite subject in great detail” (Coates, n.d.). Asperger believed the individuals he described “would be capable of exceptional achievement and original thought later in life” (Veloso, 2012). Asperger followed one of his...