The Autism Spectrum and Dr. Wing

This mental disorder has many gradations.

Posted Aug 19, 2014

Autistic child

Drawing by Elizabeth Wagele

My first encounter with autism was with a child of my father’s colleague. He was withdrawn and learned only a few words. However, he had the amazing ability to know the day of the week any date fell on, even a date like January 3, 1965. His mother gave him special diets and took him great distances for therapy. As an adult he went to a day care center and learned to do the family’s grocery shopping. I still see him around town at age 64, looking at the ground as he walks.

In the 1960s my friends had an autistic baby. She was beautiful, hated to be touched, and had frequent tantrums. After a few years they found her too difficult to care for and put her in an institution where they could visit her.

I’ve also known high-functioning autistic children who engaged in repetitive behavior and had trouble relating to other people, but eventually learned to talk and get along in the world.

As an introvert, I feel a distant kinship with some autistic writers, like Temple Grandin. I’m not implying that autistic people are simply introverted to an extreme degree; I think it’s more complicated than that. But I relate somewhat to their inwardness. Also, some kinds of social knowledge that others have seem to elude me.

Psychiatrist Lorna Wing became interested in researching autism because she had an autistic daughter. Wing helped found the National Autistic Society in 1962 and The Lorna Wing Center for Autism for diagnosing and treating children in 1991 in Britain. We might never have heard of Hans Asperger were in not for Dr. Wing, who called attention to his work and had it translated from German to English.

In Paul Vitello’s obituary of Wing in the Times, he writes that in 1944, Asperger was the first to point out a kind of autism where the children were intelligent and usually interested in only one or two things. Now what used to be called Asperger’s syndrome is considered one of the variants of the autism spectrum. “Dr. Asperger’s patients, some of whom would go on to successful careers and relatively untroubled lives, represented one end of this spectrum," Wing said. "At the other end may be patients… who are mute children prone to extreme withdrawal, obsessively repeated behaviors and temper tantrums. Between the two poles was a large population of people struggling with undiagnosed forms of the disorder at the core of autism," Dr. Wing described, and said that the disorder involved "a lack of ability to understand and use the rules governing social behavior."

According to Dr. Wing, most people have some autistic traits. “One of my favorite sayings is that nature never draws a line without smudging it. You cannot separate into those 'with' and 'without' traits as they are so scattered…I do believe you need autistic traits for real success in science and the arts," she said. "And I am fascinated by the behaviors and personalities of musicians and scientists," she told the Guardian in 2011.

On vaccines and autism: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states, “CDC supports the Institute of Medicine (IOM) conclusion that there is no relationship between vaccines containing thimerosal and autism rates in children.” And the Mayo Clinic states, “Vaccines do not cause autism…Researchers haven't found a connection between autism and childhood vaccines. In fact, the original study that ignited the debate years ago has been retracted.”

See for my books, including The Happy Introvert, essays, cartoons, and famous people. 

About the Author

Elizabeth Wagele was the co-author with Ingrid Stabb of The Career Within You: How to Find the Perfect Job for Your Personality.

More Posts