Students of Anglo-Irish literature and Irish history may be interested to learn that their studies could be markedly different were it not for the phenomenon of Asperger’s syndrome, a type of high-functioning autism. Professor Michael Fitzgerald from the department of child and adolescent psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin has uncovered a link between levels of unusual creativity in men and Asperger’s syndrome. Among the outstanding figures of the past century whom he reckons were affected by this developmental disorder are the Nobel prize winning poet WB Yeats and the politician Eamonn de Valera.
Professor Fitzgerald has been diagnosing people with autism and asperger’s syndrome since 1973. Autism, he explains,”is characterised by poor eye contact, problems reading faces and body language, and problems with social relationships. It’s also called ‘mind blindness’, in that autistic people have difficulty with empathy and sensitivity to other people’s feelings. They tend to talk at people, without reciprocity, and tend to be very controlling”. Asperger’s syndrome, he says, is basically high-functioning autism: persons with it tend to have higher IQs than those with autism.
Professor Fitzgerald’s latest book, Autism and Creativity: Is there a link between autism in men and exceptional ability?, came about through the study of various subjects’ biographies. Looking at the lives of those people whom he thought would resemble those he had encountered in clinical practice, Professor Fitzgerald was led to such luminaries as Einstein, Andy Warhol, Lewis Carroll and Ludwig Wittgenstein. From a medical viewpoint, the exciting discovery was that while there had been a long-accepted link between autism and achievements in mathematics and engineering, no one had yet spotted a connection with the arts.
If he [de Valera] hadn’t been autistic, he probably wouldn’t have left the Dáil after the Treaty was signed. There’s a slight chance – maybe 5% – the Civil War could’ve been prevented if de Valera didn’t have autism
According to Fitzgerald, the advantage afforded by Asperger’s syndrome lies in its tendency towards obsession: “They’re very obsessive as children – absolutely focussed. The adult person with Asperger’s syndrome likes to be alone; he has tremendous persistence and focus. He will stick at a problem all his life if necessary, and doesn’t have that much interest in talking to other people. He’s not easily distracted”.
Anyone familiar with the work of WB Yeats would readily connect Fitzgerald’s observations with the poet’s fixation with the Irish freedom fighter, Maud Gonne. She was the inspiration behind many of his poems, appearing as a latter day Helen of Troy, someone who represented an ideal of womanhood, and who ultimately broke Yeats’s heart. No Second Troy, A Prayer For My Daughter and Among School Children all make reference to Gonne’s beauty and power, and Yeats’s unrequited love.
From a reader’s perspective, it is easy to be seduced by the pathos and tragedy of the relationship as it is portrayed in Yeats’s poetry, but seen in the light of Professor Fitzgerald’s clinical analysis, pity might seem a more appropriate response. It was, according to Fitzgerald, an autistic relationship: “He remained obsessed with her for years and years. She had no interest in ever being married to him. The relationship with her was a fantasy, completely unrealistic. She had no relationship with him on a personal level, and if you want to have a relationship, it has to have two partners. This was a one-person-relationship where an autistic person was basically having a relationship with himself”.