Aspergers in ancient Greece

This post is pretty tangential to Classics: more of a review of the animated film Mary and Max, which involves Asperger’s Syndrome, though I do indulge a little speculation on Aspergers in the ancient world at the end.

Last night I went to the open air cinema, without much thought of what was on. It turned out to be, of all things, an Australian film, animated with clay figures, about Asterpger’s Syndrome (AS). Mary and Max by Adam Elliot.

In recent years there has been a spate, not to say a fashion, for books about Aspies (as some people with AS refer to themselves). My perception is that this 2010 film, although set at its opening in 1976, appeared at the end of that trend, but who knows, maybe the stream of works on the topic will continue.

The core message of every work on the subject can be summarised in a nutshell. There will be a list of symptoms and maybe of possible treatments. This film became distinctly didactic when the symptoms were presented in list form following Max’s diagnosis.

Beyond a list of symptoms, the central points which a work of this kind makes are that Asperger’s is at some level cool; that Aspies require understanding (though paradoxically on an emotional level they may be unable to give it); that their social isolation is painful and deserves pity; and ultimately that the Aspie who is the central character is a lovable person.

This film also included the fairly predictable message that Aspies are ‘differently abled,’ and that trying to ‘cure’ the condition may be hurtful or misconceived; along with the contradictory message that Aperger’s makes people unhappy, and not only because of lack of understanding from others.

A futher central point was that Max, the Aspie, was not in touch with his feelings. If that is really fundamental to AS, it is little wonder that modern evidence-based and analysis-driven approaches to treatment, useful as they may be at the margins, are so far from touching or treating the root of the difficulties which Aspies face. The only thing Max wanted to be ‘cured’ was his inability to cry. Modern psychiatry does not engage in deep emotional work, as far as I can tell from reading, and from meeting a few psychiatrists: it may develop insight into feelings, but not the ability to feel (although certain alternative procedures, for ecample The Presence Process, do).

Having summarized the all-too-hackenyed, if somewhat inconsistent apologia for AS which is the motif of this film, it is only fair to add that the film is full of heart, charm, humour and visual delight. I did enjoy it.

Leaving the film, and surveying the ancient world, there barely a trace of AS. Several scientists have delighted in listing talented persons who may have had AS. Michael Fitzgerald, in a 2004 book, included Socrates. A more obvious candidate may be Diogenes the Cynic, who notoriously lived in a barrel and offended everybody. It is a mark of a self-confident society to be able to learn from (rather than merely persecute) a person who is a social misfit. As far as I am aware, no ancient Roman has been suggested as an Aspie. However, when one reads Pliny the younger’s letter about his uncle’s obsesssive reading and organizing of information, he doea appear to be a candidate. His behaviour at the eruption of Vesuvius does nothing to dispel that impression.

Who else fron antiquity could on suggest for the Apergers roll of honour?

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