But though there may indeed be a devastating picture at the age of three, autistic youngsters, contrary to expectations, may go on to develop fair language, a modicum of social skills, and even high intellectual achievements; they may develop into autonomous human beings, capable of a life that may at least appear full and normal—even though, beneath it, there may remain a persistent, and even profound, autistic singularity.
Asperger had a clearer idea of this possibility than Kanner; hence we now speak of such “high functioning” autistic individuals as having Asperger’s syndrome.
With Asperger’s syndrome there is self-consciousness and at least some power to introspect and report.
Whether Asperger’s syndrome is radically different from classical infantile autism (in a child of three, all forms of autism may look the same) or whether there is a continuum from the severest cases of infantile autism (accompanied, perhaps, by retardation and various neurological problems) to the most gifted, high-functioning individuals, is a matter of dispute.
The ultimate understanding of autism may demand both technical advances and conceptual ones beyond anything we can now even dream of.
The picture of “classical infantile autism” is a formidable one.
Genetically, autism is heterogeneous—it is sometimes dominant, sometimes recessive. The genetic form may be associated, in the affected individual or the family, with other genetic disorders, such as dyslexia, attention-deficit disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or Tourette’s syndrome. This was first realized in the nineteen-sixties, with the epidemic of rubella, when a large number of babies exposed to this prenatally went on to develop autism.
Autistic people, they felt, had no true concept of, or feeling for, other minds, or even of their own; they had, in the jargon of cognitive psychology, no “theory of mind.” However, this is only one hypothesis among many; no theory, as yet, encompasses the whole range of phenomena to be seen in autism.
Kanner and Asperger were still, in the nineteen-seventies, pondering the syndromes they had delineated more than thirty years earlier, and the foremost workers of today have all spent twenty years or more considering them.
I had paid flying visits to several schools for autistic children.
I had spent an extraordinary week at a camp for autistic children, Camp Winston, in Ontario—the more so as one of the counsellors there this summer was a friend of mine with Tourette’s syndrome, who, with his lungings and touchings, reachings and buttings, his enormous vitality and impulsiveness, seemed able to “get through” to the most deeply autistic children, in a way the rest of us were unable to do.