Weed, William Speed. "Who's Crazy Now?: Even the merely eccentric may get labeled mentally ill." Discover March 2003: 76.
American Normal: The Hidden World of Asperger Syndrome
Copernicus Books, $27.50
Georges Huard measures time precisely in seconds. He'll say, "I was born one billion three hundred thousand seconds ago." Huard's obsession with time is so overwhelming that he goes to sleep every night to the beep of an alarm clock that goes off every 10 minutes. There's no one else in bed to be bothered by the incessant beeping, because Huard, 41, is not likely to have intimate relationships. He is autistic, and many of his symptoms are classic: obsession with mathematics and time, a total lack of ability in matters social.
But Huard has Asperger syndrome, a subset of autism less debilitating than other forms. Indeed, many people with Asperger's have remarkably productive lives: Temple Grandin, profiled by Oliver Sacks in An Anthropologist on Mars, is a leading expert in the design of slaughterhouses. Huard is a computer programmer at the University of Montreal.
Author Lawrence Osborne plunges into the world of Asperger's on "a metaphysical quest" to discover the meaning of "abnormal" and whether it really applies to people with Asperger's. It's something of a skittish quest, with Osborne writing in different modes from section to section. He adopts a glib reportorial tone in profiling various "high functioning" individuals with Asperger's, such as Glenn Gould, the celebrated pianist. Other times, he indulges in strangely confessional reveries--for instance, wondering if his obsession with airport layouts might be a symptom of Asperger's. Elsewhere, Osborne makes broad judgments about what he sees as the absurdity of many mental health classifications.
To Osborne, people with Georges Huard are merely eccentric. His life is focused differently from other people's, but so what? He's a happy, independent person. His obsession with time is wonderful for him. "It gives me the most fundamental pleasure in life," Huard tells Osborne. In fact, his predilections make him perfect for his programming job. To underscore that point, Osborne quites Huard as saying that he thinks the science departments of universities are filled with Asperger's people. Wired magazine reported in 2001 that Asperger's was chic and widespread in Silicon Valley. Osborne wonders in Bill gates and a host of driven, technical people don't have it-- and if, therefore, we shouldn't celebrate such individuality rather than shun it with pejorative terms like disease and abnormality.
Certainly, some Apserger's people have a hard time. Osborne profiles Marla, an acerbic recluse who is too paranoid to leave her apartment. But some "normal" people can have similar troubles, Osborne notes. And so he comes to the sweeping conclusion that modern American culture overzealously defines people as abnormal: "American psychiatry embodies a deeply pessimistic, gloomily simplistic view of the world [and is] unable to conceive of a healthy eccentricity of a truly complex individual." Never mind that his cavalier dismissal of psychiatry on the basis of quirky anecdotal evidence betrays a strangely simplistic view of the world as evil.
Media diet: Asperger's in review of American Normal, in March 2003 issue of Discover.
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