The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome

By Tony Attwood (Jessica Kingsley)

Pbk £15.99 2008

ISBN 1843106692

Any book with ‘complete’ in its title is either ambitious, foolhardy or ironic. Attwood is ambitious. Large in scope and straightforwardly written he has succeeded in writing an essential text on Asperger’s syndrome for parents, professionals and people suffering with the syndrome. A psychologist of nearly 30 years experience Attwood draws primarily on his clinical experience for the book. Together with his genial style and frequent quotations of his patients he creates a personal book. Readers will leave with a vivid sense of what it is like to experience Asperger’s sydrome far from the rather spartan  ‘Gillberg diagnostic for Asperger’s syndrome’ presented early on in the book.

Covering the basics of Aperger’s syndrome and diagnosis the book moves into its main focus, a detailed portrayal of the main features of the syndrome and help that is available for the child or adult. A qualitative impairment in social interaction is the key feature of the Aspergers and Attwood helpfully devotes a substantial part of the book to explain the intricacies. To explain the social problems faced by someone with Aspergers syndrome he uses the metaphor of a “social jigsaw puzzle of 5000 pieces”.  He writes “typical people have the picture on the box of the completed puzzle, the innate ability to know how to relate or connect with fellow human beings…the child with Asperger’s syndrome does not have the picture”. 

Attwood rounds off the book with ‘Frequently asked questions’, a glossary and a ‘resources section’. He also considers the long view for people with Asperger’s - life after school (even what employment qualities someone with Asperger’s syndrome would have) and long-term relationships. There is also a chapter on the therapeutic value of psychotherapies. Personal construct therapy is well suited to the syndrome whereas traditional psychoanalytic therapy has “very little to offer” because Asperger’s syndrome is not some fault in the nurture of the child but a cause of nature. If my recommendation is not enough it should be mentioned that this book comes with the approval of Lorna Wing the eminent British psychiatrist who first used the term Asperger’s syndrome as a new diagnostic category within the autistic specturm in1981. Now there’s a recommendation.

Pox: Genius, Madness and the Mysteries of Syphilis

By Deborah Hayden (Basic Books)

Pbk £14.99 2004

ISBN 0465028829

‘History is the essence of innumerable biographies,’ wrote Thomas Carlyle. What then of history if a terrible disease had impacted many of those lives - but had gone unacknowledged? Incurable for centuries the disease penetrated every part of the body from eyeball to bone. Bringing harrowing pain and disability the only breaks in suffering might be periods of euphoria and great energy before madness, and then death.  Not until the 1950’s, and penicillin, was there a cure. How could such a disease not alter lives and impact history? Yet it really seems that independent scholar Deborah Hayden is the first person to really recognise pox’s impact. In her book she re-examines fifteen notable lives for the effects of syphilis.  She creates a remarkable new window onto the past. It is not difficult to appreciate the magnitude of her discoveries when the list of individuals includes such notables as Adolf Hitler, Christopher Columbus, van Gogh and Abraham Lincoln.

Pox begins with a meticulous study of the origin, spread and description of syphilis. Clues, intrigue, revelation, and it has to be admitted, a certain amount of schadenfreude, create a fascinating investigation. The ancient worm-like organism that causes syphilis, ‘spirochete,’ lies at the start of the trail. Some experts believe that millions of years ago it lived in the sealed guts of termites; others say that it developed from a creature that fed off dead and decaying matter. Wherever its origins we do know that spirochete wriggled its way into human tissue at some point over the millennia, possibly 15,000 B.C., at which point it began to author itself in human life. It is not however until the fifteenth century that pox reaches the western world with Christopher Columbus returning from the Caribbean. Here on pox burgeons across Europe for 500 years. It is this period that Hayden sifts through with her “detective zeal tempered with constant wariness and well-developed scepticism.” A good detective is needed because syphilis, also known as the ‘Great Imitator’, is an elusive quarry that mimics other medical conditions.  A diagnosis must be scrupulously made. It is indeed a “delicate question” to ask: ‘what influence did syphillis have on a life’s work?’

The geniuses of artists dominate those investigated by Hayden. From each life she creates an absorbing mini-biography that culminates in an attempt to answer not one, but two “delicate” questions: Did this person have the pox? And, if so, did it affect their life’s work? It must have been quite a task for Hayden to beat back the stories and keep a focus on the task. Intriguing stories lead this way and that. Take Beethoven. Upon death his body became relic-like, as coveted as Saints’ bones. Bits were taken at various times including parts of his skull that were put in a jar. Disinterred 36 years after death he was then lodged in a metal casket for safekeeping only to be disturbed again in 1888. Putting pay to study by modern science the contents of the jar next went missing. Tantalised but not losing yourself too much, like a proper detective, you return to the investigation. And so we wonder about the energy behind van Gogh’s gold brushstrokes, the burning brilliance of Nietzsche’s aphorisms and the prescience of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. Would these creations have existed without the pox?

Somewhat lulled by these intriguing geniuses the long chapter about Hitler, towards the end of the book, comes as a shocking counterpoint to creativity. It is also where Hayden’s investigations become most sensitive and her argument most potent. For in considering whether Hitler might not have had syphillis we are brought into considering whether the holocaust might not have happened. It is a cruel ‘what if’ because there is no changing the facts. But in the flicker between worlds, reality and imagination, you powerfully experience what Hayden is trying to convey – pox changed people and these people, some of them immensely powerful, changed the world. Hayden pulls off the covers from a period of history to these facts and sheds a new light on some of the colossuses hidden beneath. As Nietzsche famously wrote, “One must have chaos in oneself in order to give birth to a dancing star. "