Book Review: Dr. Tony Attwood is a British psychologist and the world’s foremost expert on Asperger Syndrome. Asperger Syndrome was first described in 1944, and became an “official” recognized disorder included in Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders only in 1994. His other book, Asperger Syndrome: A Complete Guide for Parents and Professionals (1998) has become a classic in this relatively new field. Dr. Attwood spends his time writing papers about Asperger Syndrome, and running workshops and courses for parents and professionals. His website (http://www.tonyattwood.com.au) is full of helpful advice and links for buying materials for those with Asperger Syndrome.
Because of Dr. Attwood’s experience and qualifications, he does not write in a theoretical way. His knowledge comes from working directly with “Aspies” for over 25 years, and this shows in his work. For example, he quotes an expert who says Aspies have no sense of humor. He writes that he knows this is not true because many of his Aspie friends and clients appreciate all kinds of comedy, and one became a stand-up comedian.
Dr. Attwood is famously optimistic about Asperger Syndrome. In fact, he advises professionals to say, “Congratulations! You have Asperger Syndrome!” when they first announce the diagnosis. His book reflects that optimism. In the chapter on jobs and careers, he writes, “There is no career that would be impossible for a person with Asperger’s syndrome. I have met several thousands… who have had a wide range of careers from postman to the chief executive of an international company.” In the chapter on special interests, he reminds readers that an Aspie’s obsession with one topic can result in discoveries and breakthroughs in the field. He believes Aspies can lead independent lives as adults, have successful marriages and make valuable contributions to society.
Almost half the book is about how Aspies process emotions and language in unusual ways, and how to help them learn to function socially. Again, Dr. Attwood is optimistic about the power of cognitive behavioral therapy and tools like specialized reading materials and educational methods. He believes that if a child receives an early diagnosis, he or she can learn to read other people’s body language and to function fully in social situations. However, he does not gloss over the difficulties involved. He writes how Aspies are “face blind” or unable to understand facial expressions. Alexithymia or the inability to identify and describe feeling states is another attribute of the syndrome. He notes that one-third of all Aspies suffer depression, and another third have obsessive-compulsive disorder. These are not small obstacles to overcome, yet he believes that Aspies can succeed if they apply their normal or above-normal intelligence, and if they have access to the latest methods. Dr. Attwood’s book is one of the few that that has material on adult Aspies. He goes through common problems in marriage, such as the inability of the non-Aspie spouse to get his or her needs for affection and intimacy fully met. He describes problems that often arise if the couple has a child with Asperger Syndrome.
This book is thick, scholarly and well organized, with quick summaries of the major points at the end of each chapter. He goes over topics such as Theory of Mind, language, emotional expression, friendships, cognitive abilities and school difficulties, and much more. He provides a long section on how to speak “Aspergerese” or in such a way that an Aspie does not have to work at decoding what you are saying. An excellent index enables a reader to quickly access material on any subject in the field. His book is a guidebook for professionals, teachers, parents, spouses, siblings, and Aspies, as well as an extremely valuable reference and comprehensive encyclopedia of state-of-the-art information.
Most books on autism are written by parents of autistic children. They are about how the parents feel when their child is first diagnosed, how to get help at schools and through social services, and how to manage the teenage years. This is not that kind of book. It is much more scholarly and very technical at parts. There are sentences such as, “Formal testing by a neuropsychologist may indicate a significant discrepancy between verbal reasoning abilities and visual-spatial reasoning. If the discrepancy is a significantly higher Verbal IQ, a subsequent and more detailed assessment of cognitive abilities may indicate a diagnosis of non-verbal learning disability.”
Despite his best effort to write as the scholar that he is, Dr. Attwood still comes across as a dedicated professional with his patients’ best interests in mind. His humor, compassion and genuine caring for people with Asperger Syndrome comes through on every page.
Publishing Information: Attwood, Tony. The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. (London: Jessica Kingsley Publications), 2006.