Of Swallows and Summers: Questioning the Genius Gene

Read any blurb or primer on Asperger’s Syndrome and nine times out of ten you are bound to find the writer suggesting that a plethora of famous individuals, many of them no longer here to help us, had or must have had the condition. Einstein usually seems to come out on top here. But Andy Warhol and Paul Gambaccini get it too.


Image imported from Wikipedia based on their fair usage guidelines. All copyrights hereby acknowledged.

This is presumably intended to boost the condition in the eyes of those unfamiliar with it or needing to gain confidence in an afflicted acquaintance, relative or employee. I have no doubt as to the honesty and integrity of the claims. But one thing is forgotten. While it is possible that these popular figures were afflicted with the then-unnamed condition, there is little in terms of cast-iron proof for reasons I shall explain forthwith.

One symptom doesn’t make a syndrome

Before you take the above subheading at face value, it’s worth bearing in mind an oft-forgotten fact. The word syndrome means cluster.

Take AIDS for example – the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. You don’t literally die of AIDS. You die from something that would have probably not killed you had your immune system still been intact e.g. pneumonia or the common cold. The word ‘syndrome’ here refers to the cluster of diseases and infections that infect the victim because the white blood cells are not there to counteract them anymore and this is ultimately what leads to the sufferer’s death. Asperger’s is of course a picnic compared to AIDS but they are both classed as syndromes hence the analogy drawn here.

The name Asperger’s Syndrome, therefore, suggests a cluster of traits. The number of basic traits is usually counted at six or seven these days but yours truly has always abided by a list of five he was given by a careers officer in 1999. These are namely:

  • Obsessiveness.

  • Co-ordination problems

  • Communication problems

  • Addiction to routine

  • Memory of phenomenal proportions

This list may not do full justice to the condition (which your writer happens to have) but each of those deserves a blog entry in itself. The point here is that the likes of the famous individuals referred to above are generally only plugged as being undiagnosed Aspies on the grounds of their encyclopaedic knowledge of their specialist subject. Also the lack of any official diagnosis to explain would have given whoever had the privilege of interviewing them for university, their first job etc, one thing less to worry about in those pre-equal opportunities days. The minute anyone suggests they had Asperger’s, questions arise. Did their parents/guardians/nursemaids etc have the heartache with them that ours did with us in those dark days before the Asperger’s label was devised? Were they dragged from one psychiatric consultant to another to little avail? Were they constantly accused of being naughty or silly for the way they reacted to the emotional challenges life threw at them in their early years?

There are the strong degrees of interest for certain. But when does an obsession become an obsession as opposed to simply an interest that goes further than most people’s? I would say our weakness as Aspies isn’t so much our expert knowledge of something as our lack of natural ability to shut up about it, an area where I will admit to having had much struggle over the years, but that’s for another time.

As for the amazing brains, not everyone has the luxury of being able to work in a field where they excel such as Einstein or Warhol did. The more interested one is in something then the more likely they are to remember a great deal of information about it. Those of us who have the benefit of diagnosis have usually gained it partly as a result of our obsessions either being deemed eccentric by neurotypical society or spilling over even into our conversations with those who do not have the remotest interest in whichever passion we happen to be indulging at the time. As erstwhile teen prodigy writer Luke Jackson put it in his book Freaks, Geeks and Asperger Syndrome (drat, there’s that missing ‘s again!)

Q: When is an obsession not an obsession?

A: When it’s about football.

(Copyright, Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2002)

A lot of the time, Aspies (we call ourselves that, it’s not an un-PC term) who succeed in careers do so because their obsession just happens to be in an area where (a) there are good job opportunities, (b) there is good nurture at academic level for school-leavers (you couldn’t do BTECs and HNDs in rock music when I left school in 1990) or (c) their condition just happens to give them a trait which is valued in their chosen field e.g. the kind of meticulous checking which some employers label ‘too precise’ would help enormously if you were an aircraft inspector. Again though don’t get to thinking that means all Aspies uncertain about their future careers should pursue such a line. We possess more or less the same range of traits but often with an exception or two (again more about this another time) and there is no point in playing up one pronounced trait just to get a job in a field where interest and ability may otherwise not exist.

One swallow does not make a summer.

One skill does not qualify for a job

Moreover, one symptom does not make a syndrome.

Controversial I know, but there it is.

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