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Sula Wolff


Loners: The Life Path of Unusual Children

Category: Miscellaneous | Published: 1995 | Review Added: 23-03-2019

Rating: 3 - Worth reading

The term "Asperger's Syndrome" is in common use today, but back in 1995, there was no widely-accepted label for the psychological condition whose subjects are characterised by solitariness, the pursuit of obsessive interests, and difficulties in social interaction. We all knew the type, though - the "nerd". (I don't use that term disparagingly, and the few visitors to this web site will know why :) )

Sula Wolff was a psychiatrist who started her career in an Edinburgh children's hospital. There, numerous children were referred to her with the symptoms above, and she became intrigued by the pattern into which they all fitted. Over subsequent years, she performed a loosely-structured statistical and impressionistic analysis of these and similar children, following up her early research, where possible, with interviews with the subjects as adults.

Loners is the fruit of Wolff's study. She settles on the term "schizoid" for her subjects. This is a controversial coinage because of its association with schizophrenia, and very few Asperger's subjects develop schizophrenia. Nevertheless, their condition is suggestive of it in a very mild form: they have a feeling of separateness from the rest of the world, and a vivid inner life. It should also be borne in mind that the behavioural difficulties that caused her patients to be referred for treatment are likely to have skewed Wolff's study towards more severely affected subjects. There are many borderline "loners" out there for whom the condition is challenging, but not disabling, nor without its private rewards.

Wolff starts with a summary of the syndrome, then devotes chapters to the adult development of "loners", and the differences between schizoid boys and girls. (The syndrome seems more common in boys, and in boys more than in girls is quite often associated with exceptional intellectual or artistic talents. That said, it is now thought that, for subtle reasons, Asperger's Syndrome is underdiagnosed in the female sex.) She performs statistical studies surrounding the likelihood (from an admittedly small pool of cases) of mental illness later in life, and dilinquent behaviour.

The book's final chapter consists of free-form descriptions of the lives of two public figures who probably had Asperger's Syndrome. The first is Opal Whiteley, an Oregon girl who was obsessed with natural history and published a sensational diary, apparently written when she was a child, in which she claimed to be the daughter of French aristocrats who was switched at birth. The second is Ludwig Wittgenstein, the eccentric and difficult philosopher. This chapter I found the most readable in the book (though Opal Whiteley's symptoms surely crossed the line from schizoid to schizophrenic).

This is in interesting and informative book, but it is not in any sense a comprehensive guide to Asperger's Syndrome. Because of the nature of its source material, it concentrates on childhood behaviour. Yet in many ways, the condition's manifestations in adulthood are more intriguing. Most Asperger's subjects are introspective, and the more gifted of them are able to put their problem-solving skills to work in reaching compromises with the wider world as they mature. Typically, they seek out careers that either require high levels of mental concentration, or that allow them time to think in solitude.

The organisation of Loners is quite loose, and I wasn't clear whether it had been conceived with a central thesis. There is also a slump in the quality of the writing in the middle chapters. These contain a lot of statistics, and while these are revealing, the lay reader only needs a summary. My eyes were glazing over reading them, and I wonder if Wolff's eyes were doing the same when she was writing them.

A book which has its limitations, then, but its subject is fascinating, and Wolff writes with both insight and sympathy.

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