Can Asperger's be an asset?

Seen by many as a disability, Asperger's is also associated with exceptional artistic talent, writes Kate Holmquist.

Seen by many as a disability, Asperger's is also associated with exceptional artistic talent, writes Kate Holmquist.

The characteristics of Asperger's, a type of autism, such as the single-minded dedication to a project, amazing memory, social awkwardness and a creative ability to think outside the box, are characteristics we have come to associate with exceptional talent.

Many sufferers will find it heartening to know that Mozart, Beethoven, Glenn Gould, Andy Warhol and Vincent Van Gogh have been posthumously diagnosed by an Irish psychiatrist in a new pathography.

Prof Michael Fitzgerald, Henry Marsh Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin, explains why such artists were often misunderstood during their lifetimes, in his 13th book, The Genesis of Artistic Creativity: Asperger's Syndrome and the Arts.


"There are many references to other planets, particularly Mars, in relation to persons with Asperger's Syndrome," writes Fitzgerald.

Dr Temple Grandin, a US writer and inventor who has Asperger's, puts it another way, saying that to have Asperger's is like being an anthropologist on Mars. "I think in pictures. Words are like a second language to me. I translate both spoken and written language into full-colour movies complete with sounds, which run like a VCR through my head. Language-based thinkers often find this phenomenon difficult to understand, but in my job as an equipment designer for the livestock industry, visual thinking is a tremendous advantage," she has said.

It is this very process of having to translate what the rest of us take for granted that has led many high-functioning Asperger's people to excel in the arts. Their struggles make them see the world in new ways that thrill the rest of us.

The reproductive success of male Asperger's artists, who can be irresistible to some women, has played a role in the evolutionary development of the brain, Fitzgerald suggests. While all great artists are not autistic, certain autistic tendencies - such as the ability to focus ruthlessly - can be an advantage in making great art. Such success makes people with Asperger's symptoms or tendencies sexually attractive and thus ensures that their unusual genes are carried on to further generations.

This overlapping of the traits of Asperger's artists and of "neurotypical artists" needs more research if we are to fully understand it, but there is no doubt that mankind has benefited from what many would regard as a disability.

Fitzgerald writes: "Persons with the syndrome are often workaholics, highly persistent, content with their own company and solitary artistic occupations; they focus on detail with massive curiosity and total immersion; they are novelty-seekers in terms of their art, with massive imagination in their specialised spheres. They are also far less influenced by previous or contemporary artists in their work than are 'neurotypicals'. It appears that the autistic artist, because of his or her rather diffuse identity and diffuse psychological boundaries, has the capacity to do what the artist George Bruce described as being necessary for art: 'One must not just depict the objects, one must penetrate them, and one must oneself become the object'."

Autistic and extreme behaviour and beliefs ran in the Yeats family - Yeats's grandfather was a deeply orthodox rector of the Church of Ireland whose belief was matched only by Yeats's father's unorthodox disbelief. Like many children with Asperger's, Yeats was a shy, timid loner as a child and an aloof and imperious adult, with a slow, mannered voice and limited facial expression. He was obsessive, narcissistic and could not make emotional connections. Like some people with Asperger's, he was able to partially overcome his social awkwardness in adult life in the interests of self-promotion.

But he spoke of burying his head in books because he felt "inhuman" when in company, to the extent that the barrier between himself and others sometimes filled him with terror. His relationships were autistic, in that he could maintain friendships only with intellectuals who shared his interests. His naive and unrequited 30-year obsession with Maud Gonne is typical of people with Asperger's in that he persistently misread social cues. When he eventually married at the age of 52, it was to a 25-year-old mother figure, Bertha Georgie Hyde-Lees, who organised him and devoted herself to helping him express his creativity. Their "companionate and emotion-free" marriage was typical of the level of relationship that many men with Asperger's, who tend to be misogynistic, are content with. He had a patronising attitude to a wife who was willing to obliterate herself in the interests of her husband's well-being, Fitzgerald writes.

Jack B Yeats developed a style of painting that was typically autistic in that it portrayed a busy, detailed world that was alien to the artistic style of the time. He used vivid and extravagant colours to portray a world that he closely observed, in a "pared down fashion", Fitzgerald notes, similar to that of Edward Hopper, who also had Asperger's. An eccentric figure on the streets of Dublin, Jack B was described in an Irish Times Irishman's Diary of 1957 as "walking alone with his unmistakable sailor's gait down the south quays of the Liffey, completely absorbed in the river and the ships that he loved".

The complete self-absorption can have its ugly side, with some artists with Asperger's adept at using other people. Bruce Chatwin (1930-89), novelist and travel writer, was a masochistic sexual predator, who compartmentalised his life in different "autistic boxes" and kept multiple affairs going at the same time. One lover, Miranda Rothschild, described him as "a polymorphous pervert . . . out to seduce everybody, it doesn't matter of you are male, female, an ocelot or a tea cosy." His savage love-making made her feel "lacerated as if by a Bengal tiger". He had both ADHD and autism and, as Salman Rushdie observed, "everything he did, he did noisily". His wife said that he was "constantly gyrating on his own axis, to cause a sensation, to find a sensation. That's what made him so exciting, but you couldn't get close to him".

Jonathan Swift was also cruel to women, taking pleasure in instructing them, administering bruises and beatings for quite trivial reasons. Like Chatwin, he compartmentalised his lovers. In the country, his mistress Vanessa (Hester Vanhomrigh) was kept at a cold remove, suffering by letter his "killing, killing, killing words". In Dublin, Jonathan saw Stella (Esther Johnson) in Dublin on an almost daily basis. Signs of the condition in Swift include the fact the he had a gross lack of empathy, wrote and exercised obsessively and spoke in a sharp, high tone of voice. He also suffered from depression, which is common in people with Asperger's.

An inability to bear physical contact, even to the point of refusing to eat and wearing loose clothing, were telling signs of Asperger's in Simone Weil, the philosopher whose works were published after her death in 1943. She was so passionate about socialism that she gave much of her money away and urged everyone else to do the same, refusing to countenance any other point of view. Like Isaac Newton and Ludwig Wittgenstein - also philosophers with Asperger's - she had exceptional powers of concentration and could work for days without food or sleep. She eventually died of anorexia at the age of 33. The writer and critic Susan Sontag has said that Weil was one of those who are "repetitive, obsessive and impolite, who impress by force - not simply by their tone of personal authority and by their intellectual ardour, but by the sense of acute personal and intellectual extremity".

Dyspraxia - a form of clumsiness with a neurological basis - is another giveaway sign in Asperger's. Weil was so awkward that when she volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War, her fellow volunteers stayed out of the way of her rifle. She never saw action on the battlefield because, during training, she accidentally stepped into a pot of boiling oil and spent months recuperating.

But as Fitzgerald's book shows, while people with the syndrome suffer for their art, Western art and philosophy can hardly be imagined without them.

The Genesis of Artistic Creativity: Asperger's Syndrome and the Arts (Jessica Kingsley, London and Philadelphia, $19.95).