So, what’s Asperger’s syndrome?

I mentioned in my first post that I have Asperger’s syndrome.  What does that mean?  It sounds pretty impressive and serious, doesn’t it?

Well, don’t worry, because it’s not a disease.  Apparently the word syndrome just means a set of characteristics that appear together, that form a pattern.  You could put together a list of characteristics to describe, say, Doctor Who fans, like owning all the episodes on DVD, periodically quoting lines from the series, having an opinion on which actor did the best job in the role of the Doctor, and so on… and you could call it Doctor Who syndrome if you wanted to sound impressive.  It would be a label.  But it wouldn’t be terribly useful.

Asperger’s syndrome is also a label, but it’s one that I have personally found quite useful.  I only learned about Asperger’s two years ago (I was 26 then), but it has helped me to understand a lot about how my brain works and why I have had some of the strengths and weaknesses I’ve experienced at all stages of my life.

The best way I could think of to introduce the topic to you was to go back to the first thing I read about Asperger’s syndrome:  everyone’s favorite fount of Internet knowledge, Wikipedia!  (Don’t worry; I read other things after that.)   Actually, I’m going to quote/paraphrase the page as it was two years ago, since that’s how I remember it and that’s how picky I am.

The term Asperger’s syndrome (or AS) was invented in 1981 by English psychiatrist Lorna Wing.  I have to point out that this is within my lifetime, so this is a very new area of study that’s still developing.  It wasn’t officially recognized in the psychiatric profession’s manual until 1994.  It’s not just that I didn’t know about it as a child– nobody knew about it back then!

Lorna Wing had been studying the writing of Hans Asperger, an Austrian psychiatrist and pediatrician, which had been overlooked for decades.  (If you’re wondering how his name is pronounced, the answer is “just how it looks,” which is why a lot of people with AS wish he’d had a different last name.)

In 1944, Hans Asperger […] observed four children in his practice who had difficulty integrating socially. Although their intelligence appeared normal, the children lacked nonverbal communication skills, failed to demonstrate empathy with their peers, and were physically clumsy. Their way of speaking was either disjointed or overly formal, and their all-absorbing interest in a single topic dominated their conversations.

Let me tell you a little about myself as a kid.  I loved to read from an early age (my mom has a picture of me reading a book while I was still in diapers), and I loved to tell adults what I had learned– often using the same scholarly-sounding language that was used in the books.  They seemed impressed when I did that.

My interests were often very focused.  I would try to learn everything I could about the planets and constellations, or about the bones and organs in the body.  One of my earliest interests was maps of every kind.  I loved to look through a world atlas from cover to cover to see all the countries, or use a road map to learn the names of all the streets in my neighborhood.  I would imagine that the living room floor was a giant road map and use Duplos to represent the traffic lights (the fact that there were no green Duplos irritated me a little).

One of the stories my parents and I laugh at is the time I was at a library reading group and the reader asked the kids what we had gotten for Christmas.  I shyly replied “A road map.”  My parents were embarrassed!  Some people may have been wondering how cheap they were to pass that off as a Christmas gift.  But the truth was that I had asked for, and received, a Philadelphia road map (along with a great many other toys), and it was the gift I was the most excited about!

I wore out many road maps highlighting my favorite roads (the best one was Street Road).  As you can probably guess, I was pretty easy to keep entertained at home– I could spend an entire day playing quietly by myself.  When it came to playing with other kids, though, it was a different story.  If there wasn’t a pre-defined, structured activity to follow, I didn’t have much of an idea what to do with other kids.

My parents tell me that often I’d be walking along with them.  Someone would call out, “Hi, Nathan!” and I wouldn’t respond or even look up at them.  “Nathan, didn’t you hear [name] saying hello to you?” my mom or dad would ask.  “Yes, I did,” I’d reply.  It seemed like a strange question at the time– I simply didn’t grasp the concept that a response is expected in that situation.  I usually kept to myself at recess as well.  When other kids played kickball or football or gathered into groups to talk, I usually preferred to play on the swings or walk the perimeter of the playground like a balance beam.

I think that the 4-to-6-year-old me would match Dr. Asperger’s description of his “little professors”  pretty well.

One last snippet from the Wikipedia article before I wrap this post up:

In January 2006, Professor Simon Baron-Cohen of the University of Cambridge, regarded as one of the leading current researchers in this field, proposed the theory that people with AS tend to hyper-systemise; that they tend to seek to approach all spheres of life, including the social sphere, by developing systems or sets of laws to operate to.

Does this sound like anyone you know?  If you read my first post, this ought to be ringing a bell!   ; )

Well, I have more to say on this topic, but this is enough for now.  Thanks for reading!


  1. I will try not to leave a comment on every post you write, but I couldn’t help it. Thank you for sharing about AS and about you. You write so well.

  2. You are welcome to comment on as many posts as you want, Heather. It’s nice to know someone’s reading, and your comments are very encouraging!

    : )

  3. I don’t think AS is caused by systemizing, I think we have to systemize because it doesn’t come naturally. People think it is just about systemizing because they look at the male Aspie and his computer, but they don’t see the female Aspie who develops a social relationship with animals instead of people, or who uses soap operas to teach herself social behaviour, in the way children with Aspergers are taught with Social Stories. That’s a standard gender difference, but people see the gender difference in male Aspies, and think it is the Aspergers itself, when it is really the Aspergers manifesting in a male way.

    BTW Patrick Troughton was the best IMO.

  4. That’s a helpful observation, Anon. To fill others in, most of the people diagnosed with Asperger’s are male– the ratio is currently somewhere from 4 to 6 times as many boys as girls (according, again, to Wikipedia). Autism is likewise more commonly diagnosed in males than in females.

    There have been speculations about why this may be, but I don’t think we even know for sure that Asperger’s affects boys more than girls; it may simply affect them differently, or maybe we’re not looking for the right things. But there’s even less information to help Aspie girls than there is for Aspie boys– which is too bad; I hope that changes!

    The whole thing seems pretty confusing, because it’s diagnosed by looking for external signs of some difference in the brain that we don’t understand– it makes sense that it wouldn’t create the same external signs in every single person.

    P.S. I need to watch some Troughton episodes sometime; I’m an American who discovered the series in its recent rebirth and have only seen a few scattered episodes of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Doctors on PBS, so I’m a newbie in Doctor Who terms (I think I give Eccleston the very slight edge over Tennant). But I like Troughton’s doctor’s famous quote about how there are “corners of the universe that have bred the most terrible evil… they must be fought!”

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