Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Dr. Tony Attwood’s Definition of Asperger Syndrome

I am a big fan of Dr. Tony Attwood and his work on Asperger Syndrome because he is so insistent on viewing Asperger Syndrome, not as a disease or a mental handicap, but as an equally valid mode of viewing the world. Here is Dr. Attwood’s definition of Asperger Syndrome. (My comments as to how these things relate to me are italicized.)

From my clinical experience I consider that children and adults with Aspergers Syndrome have a different, not defective, way of thinking.

I definitely do not see myself, in any way, as having a problem. If anything it is everyone else who has a problem. The world around me is full of boring, dull and unintelligent people. I am the smart, interesting one. I should be the character you so often see in movies, who comes in to the lives of ordinary people and helps them see the true beauty of the world. The problem, of course, with the perspective is that, while it is perfectly reasonable, it leaves one trapped. If you are not defective then why change? If you have no intention of changing then what is the point of seeking help?

The person usually has a strong desire to seek knowledge, truth and perfection with a different set of priorities than would be expected with other people. There is also a different perception of situations and sensory experiences. The overriding priority may be to solve a problem rather than satisfy the social or emotional needs of others.

I have a reputation for being argumentative. I have no interest in simply talking to people as a means of being sociable. Talking for me is a way to engage in a discussion, usually about ideas and usually quite theoretical at that. I argue in a very forceful manner that many people find intimidating. The truth is that the only way I know how to socially relate to people is by engaging in intellectual brawls with them.

The person values being creative rather than co-operative.

I view life as an intellectual experiment in which I get to push the boundaries of sanity. The 19th century historian, Jacob Burckhardt, in the Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, defined the shift from the medieval world to modern world, ushered in by the Renaissance, in terms of the discovery of the individual. The individual was no longer to be viewed simply as a product of his class, who should meekly accept his station in life assigned to him by God, but as a being who could create his own purpose and meaning. The individual was a canvas upon which one creates one’s own unique piece of art. If we are to believe this, and our modern world’s celebration of the individual gives us every reason to, then I should be viewed as hero of modernity even by those who have never heard of Burckhardt. For some strange reason this has not happened. I suspect this has to do mainly with mass societal hypocrisy.

The person with Aspergers syndrome may perceive errors that are not apparent to others, giving considerable attention to detail, rather than noticing the “big picture”.

All I ask is that, unless you are intentionally being absurd and ironic for the sake of an intellectual joke, what you say should be coherent. I take the failure to do so as a personal insult.

The person is usually renowned for being direct, speaking their mind and being honest and determined and having a strong sense of social justice.

I am not much into social justice in its modern sense. I am, though, a person with strongly held Kantian sensibilities. One needs to have principles and keep to them, especially when they turn against you. Anything else is hypocrisy.

The person may actively seek and enjoy solitude, be a loyal friend and have a distinct sense of humour.

I spend the vast majority of my time alone in my own thoughts, where I play my intellectual games. In a sense my conversations with other people are simply an extension of these games. It is much more interesting to play the game against someone else instead of having to play both sides by yourself. This is of course assuming that the other person understands the game and is capable of some basic level of intelligent thought.

However, the person with Aspergers Syndrome can have difficulty with the management and expression of emotions.

I am very good at expressing certain emotions, such as rage and frustration. When I get angry I raise my voice and gesticulate furiously with my hands. This is perfectly reasonable. You did something to get me angry so what should you expect me to do but get angry.

Children and adults with Aspergers syndrome may have levels of anxiety, sadness or anger that indicate a secondary mood disorder. There may also be problems expressing the degree of love and affection expected by others. Fortunately, we now have successful psychological treatment programs to help manage and express emotions.

I have a running issue with depression. There is most probably a genetic component to it. I suspect that living in a world in which everyone else possess such different thought patterns from my own has not helped. I have a love hate relationship with my depression. It is a major source for my creativity, and much of what makes me interesting. I pay a heavy emotional price for these things. I tend to think that the price I pay in pain is worth it and if I had to choose between my suffering and being dull and ordinary I would choose my suffering, at least on most days.


One of the interesting things I have found in learning about Asperger Syndrome is how much of how I operate so neatly fits into standard Aspie patterns of behavior. Sitting down and reading Tony Attwood’s case studies of Asperger children is for my like reading the story of my own childhood. I keep on thinking to myself: yes that’s me, I did that. This raises an important challenge. I like to think of myself as a rational individual, not as the victim of funny brain chemistry. Does being an Aspie undermine my claims to being a rational individual? In dealing with society it is in my interest to portray myself as an Aspie. People are far more willing to put up with the shenanigans of minority groups or of the mentally handicapped than the shenanigans of eccentrics bent on playing out their own private games with reality.

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