Asperger’s Syndrome, a disorder in the autism spectrum first identified in 1944 by an Austrian pediatrician, Hans Asperger, has become a popular dramatic plot device in television shows such as House, Bones, Law & Order and Degrassi: The Next Generation. It defined the fascinating profile of the literary protagonists in Mark Haddon’s 2003 award-winning novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, and in Stieg Larsson’s 2008 posthumous work, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Now Claire Danes is pegged to play the role of Temple Grandin, in an HBO movie to be released in 2010.
Some people might think if I could snap my fingers I’d choose to be ‘normal. But, I wouldn’t want to give up my ability to see in beautiful, precise pictures.
~~ Temple Grandin
Grandin overcame the limitations imposed by the disorder to become a top scientist in the field of humane livestock handling.
High school was especially harsh for Grandin, who was called “tape recorder” by other kids because she repeated things over and over, and she was hypersensitive to many forms of sensory stimulation. She eventually graduated with degrees from several universities, going on to write influential essays on animal welfare and designing humane slaughterhouses. She appears regularly on the news talk show circuit and was the subject of a BBC documentary, The Woman Who Thinks Like a Cow, and Errol Morris’ First Person: Stairway to Heaven.
In part, the fascination with Asperger’s is due to the growing social acceptance of neuro-diversity – a buzzword that aims to promote an awareness that not all brains are similarly wired. Many of the books about the disorder have been written since the 1990s, and along with that interest has come a revisionist diagnosis of many creative and scientific geniuses.
The ascendancy of Asperger’s as a popular fictional device or “It Disability,” as some have called it, is partly due to the fact that patients often present as “normal,” except for their social awkwardness and obsessive interests.
Hollywood likes to portray them as tragically misunderstood and endearingly eccentric.
“Any kind of awareness in the mainstream culture is good, I suppose. But it’s a double-edged sword. You have to ensure that it doesn’t negate the severity of the problem,” says Margot Nelles, founder of the Aspergers Society of Ontario.