Introduction by Yuval Levental: I am a person on the autism spectrum who critically analyzes autism advocacy. I hold a Bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering from Michigan State University and a Master’s degree in Electrical Engineering from ESIEE Paris. Other hobbies of mine include recreationally solving complex math puzzles, traveling, eating new foods, and learning about different cultures.
Tony Attwood: A Good Overview of Autism with Some Unrealistic Expectations
When I discovered in high school that I was autistic, the first book I read on the subject was “The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome” by Dr. Tony Attwood (https://corticalchauvinism.com/2015/01/14/visualizing-neurodiversity-breathing-for-treatment/). In light of an upcoming protest against Dr. Attwood (https://www.gofundme.com/autistics-to-attend-attwood-event), I was reminded of his book and realized that my opinion about his book has dramatically changed over time.
Tony Attwood summarizes the main points of his book on a single page on his personal website (http://www.tonyattwood.com.au/about-aspergers/what-is-aspergers). Although he claims people with Asperger’s/autism have a different, not defective, way of thinking, the listed characteristics are mostly deficits, such as “Delayed social maturity and social reasoning”, and “A need for assistance with some self-help and organizational skills.” He does list “advanced vocabulary and syntax” as one of the characteristics, but doesn’t indicate how common this characteristic is in autistic individuals (Attwood 33). Most of the examples involving academic performance in his book are examples of success. Nonetheless, Attwood does list the advantages of a diagnosis, but it is also important to provide support and realistic expectations early on to ensure maximum success later in life (53).
The sections Theory of Mind, Expression of Emotions, Movement and Coordination, and Sensory Sensitivity are well-written, but Attwood should be more careful with his section on Special Interests and Cognitive Abilities. Those interests may or may not be applicable to a real-world career, and sometimes, extra effort is required to adapt a special interest to the real world (199). The section on cognitive abilities does contain a wide variety of discussion on strengths and weaknesses that an autistic individual may face (256), but sometimes hinges on questionable assertions, such as claiming that Einstein might have been autistic because he failed his language tests, citing Temple Grandin (253). In fact, legitimate research shows that he did well in German, Greek, and Latin on his college entrance exam. He struggled with French on the exam, but that’s because although he was born in Germany, he took the exam in Switzerland, where the French language is taught from childhood (https://www.nytimes.com/1984/02/14/science/einstein-revealed-as-brilliant-in-youth.html).
The section on College and Career provides a wide array of possible resources and strategies for success. In other areas, it misses important information. Attwood says that “There is no career that would be impossible for a person with Asperger’s syndrome,” listing everything from the trades to managing an international company (295). Somehow, he doesn’t discuss the high unemployment rate, which to be able to deal with it, would at the very least require understanding of autism as a disability (https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2015/04/21/401243060/young-adults-with-autism-more-likely-to-be-unemployed-isolated). Because of the high rate of unemployment, it is crucial for most autistic people to seek help as soon as possible for this issue. Even special programs for autistic individuals may have low acceptance rates.
In conclusion, “The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome” gives a good overview of what Asperger’s/autism is, and covers a wide range of strengths and difficulties, but puts too much focus on the strengths in his examples and his statement that autism is a different, not defective way of thinking. His discussion on special interests and cognitive abilities should include statistical evidence to indicate how likely autistic individuals will succeed in those areas, instead of vague anecdotes. The most critical issue in the book is that the high rate of unemployment is not discussed. Overall, looking at both perspectives will lead to a more insightful discussion on Asperger’s/autism.