Norm Ledgin caused a stir with his book, Diagnosing Jefferson. The author claimed that the genius of America’s third president was due to Asperger Syndrome, which could explain his 54-year obsession with building and rebuilding Monticello, his inability to control his spending, and his affair with a child/slave. After this book became a best seller, the author wrote Asperger’s and Self-Esteem: Insight and Hope through Famous Role Models, which claims that thirteen giants of history – Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, and Mozart among them-also had Asperger Syndrome. Some people also believe that Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Charles Darwin, Galileo, Pablo Picasso, Benjamin Franklin, Margaret Mead and Aristotle had Asperger Syndrome.
Lately authors are adding Bill Gates to the list of famous Aspies because of his lack of social skills, inability to make eye contact and tendency to rock back and forth coupled with his obsession with technology. Diane Kennedy, an author and advocate for Asperger Syndrome, writes, “They are our visionaries, scientists, diplomats, inventors, chefs, artists, writers and musicians. They are the original thinkers and a driving force in our culture.”
Hans Asperger, the German doctor who discovered the syndrome, would agree with Kennedy’s assessment. He believed that “for success in science or art, a dash of autism is essential. The essential ingredient may be an ability to turn away from the everyday world, from the simply practical and to rethink a subject with originality so as to create in new untrodden ways with all abilities channeled into the one specialty.”
Likewise, Dr. Temple Grandin, an adult with autism who became a successful engineer, academic and speaker, believes that her disorder is an asset. She once famously called NASA a sheltered workshop for people with autism and Asperger Syndrome. She believes that people with autistic spectrum disorders are the great innovators, and “if the world was left to you socialites, nothing would get done and we would still be in caves talking to each other.”
However, it is absolutely impossible to diagnose anyone posthumously or without having the person in the room. Clinicians can only diagnose Asperger Syndrome by observing behaviors. Another problem in throwing people like Mozart and Benjamin Franklin into the Asperger population is that even if a person is in front of them, doctors have a hard time distinguishing between intellectual giftedness, Attention Deficit Disorder and Asperger Syndrome. There has been little research into the personalities of intellectually gifted people, but the few that have been done show that they are often intense, restless, strong-willed, and sensitive to light and sound — all qualities of Asperger Syndrome. People with very high IQs often question the status quo, resist direction, have long attention spans, undergo periods of intense work and effort, and like to organize things even as children. Other people often perceive them as “different.” All this is the same with those who have Asperger Syndrome.
The idea that every Aspie is a potential genius can put undue pressure on a child with Asperger Syndrome. Luke Jackson, a thirteen-year-old author with Asperger Syndrome, complains that he is always watching television about high functioning autistic people who can do things like play the piano brilliantly without taking lessons, draw detailed renditions of buildings they had only seen once or add numbers in their heads like Rainman. “I find these television programs depressing,” he says. “I got all the nerdiness and freakishness but none of the genius.”
Many people who are experts in Asperger Syndrome such as Dr. Teresa Bolick, Dr. Tony Attwood, and Dierdre Lovecky write about the positive aspects of Asperger Syndrome without focusing on the idea of genius. Lovecky notes how Aspies often have advanced vocabularies, recognize patterns others do not, and pursue ideas despite evidence to the contrary because they are not easily swayed by others’ opinions. Their ability to focus on details and their inability to see the big picture means they can come up with solutions to problems others overlook. Aspies are often willing to spend long hours in laboratories and in front of computer screens because they do not mind being alone. All this enables them to make tremendous contributions at work and school. Author Patricia Bashe points out that people often admire those who can work independently. She writes, “Our society celebrates the individual who does what he thinks is right and goes his own way.”
Because of their unusual reactions to stimuli such as light and sound, Aspies see the world differently than most people. They are able to comprehend multiple levels of meanings of words and can be fabulous punsters. When told they had to “eat and run,” one Aspie said, “Oh, that makes us carnivorous panty hose.”
Many experts relate that Aspies can make amazingly loyal friends. They are usually free from sexism or racism. They do not manipulate people but speak out frankly and honestly. They are sincere truth-tellers, whose naivety and trusting nature makes them incapable of backstabbing. As employees, they are completely dependable and follow the rules of the job. Psychologist Teresa Bolick writes, “Their deficits are actually assets, as they are unfettered by convention or manners. Aspies help us stay grounded by questioning why we do what we do, why we need to get married” and other basic societal assumptions.
Parents who have successfully raised happy and productive children with Asperger Syndrome often advise others to never give up or become discouraged. An Aspie who receives good help and professional services can lead a good life. The goal does not have to be about genius but rather everyday love and sharing among family members. Dr. Michael Powers, a psychologist who works with families with autism, says success for a person with Asperger Syndrome can be “going to work or school without many incidents.” Success can be simply having “improved social relationships until the time when everyone’s life becomes better. Life then becomes a more cooperative adventure for everyone and all.”
American Psychiatric Association. Desk Reference to the Diagnostic Criteria From DSM-IV-TR (Desk Reference to the Diagnostic Criteria from DSM) Washington, DC: The American Psychiatric Association, 2000.
Attwood, Tony (PhD). “Should You Explain the Diagnosis To Your Child with Asperger Syndrome?” The Asperger Syndrome and High Functioning Autism Society, posted at http://www.ahany.org/ShouldYouExplainTheDiagnosis.htm
Bashe, Patricia and Barbara Kirby. The Oasis Guide to Asperger Syndrome. New York: Crown Publishers, 2005.
Bolick, Teresa (PhD). Asperger Syndrome and Adolescence (Gloucester, MS: Fair Winds Press) 2004.
Jackson, Luke. Freaks, Geeks and Asperger Syndrome (London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers) 2002.
Kennedy, Diane. ADHD Autism Connection. Colorado Springs, CO: Waterbrook Press, 2002.
Ledgin, Norm with Temple Grandin. Asperger’s and Self Esteem: Insight and Hope Through Famous Role Models (Arlington, TX: Future Horizons), 2002.
Ledgin, Norm with Temple Grandin. Diagnosing Jefferson (Arlington, TX: Future Horizons), 2000.
Lovecky, Deirdre. Different Minds. Philadelphia: Kingsley Publishers, 2004.
Powers, Michael. Children with Autism. Bethesda, MD: Woodbine House, 2000.
Root-Bernstein, Robert and Michele. Sparks of Genius (New York: Mariner Books), 2001.
Webb, James. “Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnosis of Gifted Children.” Presented at the Symposium on Cutting Edge Minds, the American Psychological Association, 2000.