Ludwig Wittgenstein had symptoms of autism

Book tip: Autism - a different kind of intelligence

"What we should make visible is not darkness, but light". Teachers, doctors, parents spend too much time doing what people with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) cannot. But what is there is not even noticed, what autistic people are good at, they hardly notice. "The American anthropologist Roy Richard Grinker knows what he is talking about.

His daughter Isabel was diagnosed with Kanner syndrome, the early childhood form of autism, in 1994. In the first two years everything seemed ok, he writes. Until what little language she had suddenly seemed lost. She also avoided all eye contact, including with her parents. To speak of his daughter's withdrawal is wrong. Because she never participated in society and could therefore not withdraw. Before that, there were different diagnoses, among other things she was declared to be mentally retarded.

Autistic people think in pictures, they need clear structures. And they challenge traditional views of the world. The British psychiatrist Uta Frith once compared the brains of autistic people with running engines that cannot turn off because there are no central command posts. For example, autistic people see details that non-autistic people do not even notice. Because our vision is shaped by habits, routines and consensus. However, autistic people do not share the consensus, which does not mean that their perceptions are worth less than ours, stresses Grinker. Autistic people simply have a different type of intelligence.

Roy Richard Grinker, Unstrange Minds: Remapping the World of Autism, Basic Books, 2008, 352 pages. ISBN-13: 978-0465027644 (Published in English only.)

Regardless of the country, the AS disorders are the same everywhere, they can change during life, some disappear, sometimes new ones are added. Children and adults in particular, whose cognitive disorders are the least likely to be seen, often suffer the most. If there is no diagnosis, the condition remains undetected and continues. It is therefore important that autism spectrum disorders are identified and diagnosed as such. The more the better, says Grinker. Because only since he found out about it did he see a lot of autistic people around him. Tempel Grandin once joked in this connection that NASA is arguably the largest "day care center" for autistic people.

Parallels to left-handed people

The more autistic there are officially, the more teachers, schools and authorities have to deal with it, emphasizes the anthropologist. And so many parents would no longer be so much on their own in their struggle for an adequate education for their children. They can organize themselves better and fight for the rights of their children together with other affected families. This is what happened in Calcutta, for example, where the mother of an autistic son went from being a lone fighter and stigmatized mother to becoming the head of the largest organization in the country for the support and advancement of autistic people.

Grinker also finds parallels with left-handed people: You're never quite sure, but you get better over time. In the descriptions of his daughter's development, her, often very small, progress becomes clear. Just like the parents' fight against the authorities. He talks about the many bureaucratic hurdles caused by school administration and court hearings. The author does not forget to mention that support and help is always a question of class: on the one hand because of the costs, on the other hand because of the symbolic capital: as a university professor it is easier to argue when it comes to promoting the daughter ; one is more likely to be heard and taken seriously than, say, a worker.

Social and cultural-historical context

Studies in the US and UK show that one in 150 and 160 children, respectively, have an autism spectrum disorder. The symptoms are arguably as old as humans. But it's only since the name has been given for it that you start to see autism. The author takes a historical journey back to the Middle Ages, using old stories to recall possible autistic people from all over the world. He analyzes old and new films primarily in relation to the social and cultural-historical context: "Victor" by Truffaut, for example, or the South Korean film "Marathon", which had a similarly sensitizing effect in South Korea as "Rainman" in the USA.

Asperger's vs. Kanner

The scientist also goes into the "history of the discovery" of autism, especially the pioneering work of the two Austrian doctors Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger. At this point, however, one of the book's major weaknesses becomes apparent. On the one hand, the author does not mention the Russian neurologist Ewa Sutscharewa, who has been shown to have phenomenologically researched symptoms of autism before the two men in the 1920s. He also propagates the misinformation that the emigrated Leo Kanner was the first to describe autistic states in the USA. We know that it was the other way round, and that Kanner, probably inspired by Asperger's studies in Vienna, was encouraged to do similar case studies.

This inaccuracy may sound petty, but a scientist and university professor could be expected to be more diligent.

"Fridge Mothers"

Furthermore, Grinker does not go into the fact that the understanding of the diagnostic classification has changed in the meantime. Although the conditions described by Asperger are still valid, around a third of all cases that the therapeutic educator labeled "autistic psychopaths" throughout his life would not be with Asperger's syndrome, but with other disorders within autism Spectrum can be diagnosed.

Sometimes funny to read are the mutual prejudices between Americans and French in matters of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, which Grinker cites. Because in the Grande Nation until 2004 autism was classified as a psychosis, the result of an unsuccessful decoupling and an allegedly emotionless, cold mother. France is still strongly influenced by Lacan, whom many read but few understand, he jokes. The stereotype of refrigerator mothers in the search for the causes of autism is still widespread in South Korea. Society there puts a lot of pressure on mothers when children are not as successful as many would like them to be.

Although the book provides interesting insights into the different cultural perspectives on autism, the scope is disappointing. Only a third of the book is really devoted to this topic. Grinker's descriptions of the experiences and contexts of parents in Kenya, India, and South Korea do not live up to the expectations that the blurb promises. Even the small bits and pieces of details that he presents do not change: traditional healers in South Africa who diagnose autism or that autistic children in Senegal are called "Nit-Ku-Bou", wonderful children.

The myth of vaccinations

Despite these shortcomings, the book provides a refreshing and educational approach to the subject. It packs a lot of scientific and medical information in an easy-to-read style and enables a comprehensive overview of the many facets of ASS: "Unstrange Minds", unfortunately only available in English so far, but does not shy away from taboo questions, for example when it comes to Parents worry about what will happen to their autistic child after their death. In some places Grinker's explanations are redundant, which may be due to the fact that certain topics are very important to him, such as the still widespread myth that vaccinations are responsible for autism. The author makes many convincing arguments against it and emphasizes that to date there has not been a single proof of this.