It was her husband’s tinkering with their music collection, Geraldine recalled, that nearly ended their marriage. “Michael rearranged all our classical music CDs in order of the birth-date of the composer, of all things, and I couldn’t find anything,” she told me. Michael’s response at the time had been a robotically mouthed, “Well, I’m sorry you feel that way.” Cue airborne crockery and threats of divorce.
Their marriage was saved when Michael was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. Geraldine no longer saw a cold, unsympathetic husband, but a decent man struggling to navigate a relationship without the neurological compass that guides normal social interaction. He had since learnt to make eye contact and to appear sincere and less aloof, a near-theatrical feat aided by his considerable intelligence.
This memorable interview, which I conducted a decade ago, sprang to mind as I read yesterday’s report about some high-IQ children appearing to shed symptoms of autism as they grow older. It is a striking finding, because autism – or, more correctly, autism spectrum disorder – has long been thought to be a life sentence. At the severe end of the spectrum, that will probably remain tragically so for the teenagers still in nappies who have never spoken a word nor initiated a cuddle with their tireless mothers. But for young children at the milder end, who perhaps show a delay in language acquisition or challenging behaviour, the research offers a spark of hope that some therapies – or even spontaneous neurological good fortune – might push a lucky few off the spectrum and into the realms of clinical normality. It is also a reminder that scientific investigation – particularly when it comes to the human brain – has the capacity to confound and surprise, and to uncover new avenues in areas dominated by cul-de-sacs.
The study, funded by the US National Institutes of Health and published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, looked at 34 young people aged from eight to 21, who were previously assigned an autism diagnosis but were now considered not to have it, and were being schooled with no special help. Their earlier problems ranged from an inability to read faces to communication difficulties and repetitive behaviour. Researchers double-checked that those original diagnoses were correct, and then found a comparable group (matched for age, sex and non-verbal IQ) of young people with high-functioning autism. The most notable difference between the two groups turned out to be verbal IQ: those who had “shed” their autism had verbal IQs around seven points higher than the high-functioning group.