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Fame, power, and Asperger's syndrome

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Do all emotionally cold, single minded, autocratic odd bods suffer from Asperger's syndrome? A professor of child psychiatry at Trinity College, Dublin (Michael Fitzgerald. Journal of Medical Biography 2001;9:231–5) has described these personality traits in Ireland's first president, Eamon De Valera, and suggested this diagnosis.

Professor Fitzgerald lists the six commonly quoted criteria for the diagnosis of Asperger's syndrome (severe impairments in reciprocal social interaction, all-absorbing narrow interests, imposition of routines on self and others, non-verbal communication problems, speech and language problems, and motor clumsiness). (The last two are not included in the fourth edition of the American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV).) He goes on to provide an extremely unflattering picture of President De Valera based in large part on two biographies. Descriptions of the president include expressions such as odd, baffling, arrogant, an outsider, lacking in social graces, tactless, aloof, lacking empathy, and humourless. He is said to have been extremely autocratic and sure of the rightness of his own views. He was obsessed by Irish nationalism and absorbed by mathematics. (The latter interest led to his election as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1968.) (DSM-IV refers to “preoccupation with one or more stereotyped and restricted patterns of interest that is abnormal either in intensity or focus”; whether intense Irish nationalism or an interest in mathematics comes into this category seems at least debatable.) He was a stickler for routine, had a liking for uniforms, and involved himself in the minutiae of government. As a public speaker he was said to be verbose, pedantic, repetitious, and condescending. Professor Fitzgerald concludes that De Valera met the DSM-IV criteria for Asperger's syndrome.

We have all met aloof, difficult, cold fish who are “never wrong”. Do they have Asperger's syndrome? Does it help to say that they do? If you saw Maureen Lipman playing the part of the play agent Peggy Ramsay in Alan Plater's play Peggy for You you will have seen a very funny portrait of an eccentric, obsessional, infuriating, but seemingly loveable character who had many of the features of Asperger's syndrome. Making that diagnosis at the theatre made me feel clever and perhaps slightly smug but was it really much better than most people's diagnosis of extreme eccentricity?

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