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  • Naomi P. Cohen

Syndrome

Contemplation of Asperger’s Syndrome has come again to the forefront of my thoughts this week and I decided to write my first blog post of the year about it. Sorry, unicorns will have to wait.

Asperger’s is a mild form of autism, that affects a person’s social abilities but not their academic capabilities. Aspies struggle with facial expressions and don’t make eye contact when talking with people. They become intensely interested in a few subjects and will focus on those, to the exclusion of other things, and will talk at length about these subjects, oblivious to the level of interest of those they’re talking to. The syndrome was named after Hans Asperger, who studied children with autistic-like behavior but normal intelligence.

Why am I writing about this, instead of a fantasy topic? I am an aspie myself, and an old movie I watched this week got me thinking about the portrayal of such people in movies and literature. I’ve been raving about it to a few friends, with minimal response. This seemed like a better place to get my thoughts down.

The movie that has my intense interest at the moment is the 1953 film Lili with Leslie Caron (a wonderful dancer). The movie follows a French teenager, recently orphaned, who wanders into a carnival looking for work. The girl is strangely innocent and naïve. She quickly gets into trouble that the carnival’s magician reluctantly helps her out of. She falls instantly in love, despite the man obviously not reciprocating. Lili is extremely trusting at the beginning of the movie, takes everyone at face value, and struggles when they don’t speak their minds as openly as she does, or have more complex emotions and thoughts than what they’re expressing to her.

When the magician rejects her advances, Lili becomes depressed and considers suicide. The gruff puppeteer, the “angry man” as Lili calls in him in his hearing, sees her climbing the trapeze ladder, and calls out to her through one of his puppets. Lili comes over and begins interacting with the puppets as if they’re real people, to the amusement of the other performers, who gather to watch. The puppeteer hires Lili for shows, struggling with his own feelings that Lili is blind to due to her continuing infatuation with the charming magician.

It’s a wonderful film, full of emotion, music and dancing, but Lili’s simplistic view of people seems to border on autism. For all that, she’s not stupid. When the puppeteer jolts her out of her bittersweet fantasies, she gives herself time to think things through and realizes the social machinations that she’s misunderstood up to that point, at least regarding the magician. Her social struggles, coupled with her clumsiness, as shown in her brief job as a waitress, suggests to me that the movie is, knowingly or not, about a young woman with Asperger’s.



An example of this syndrome from history is Alan Turing. He was never officially diagnosed, but scholars have studied his life, and pointed out that he meets a lot of the criteria. Alan Turing had interests in mathematics and technology and made great strides toward the first computer. The Turing Test is a way to differentiate between humans and an artificial intelligence. Benedict Cumberbatch played Turing in the recent movie the Imitation Game, about the efforts to break Germany’s Enigma Code during World War II.

Lili caught my attention enough to write this, but it was V.E. Schwab’s series, Vicious and Vengeful that first put me in mind of aspies in stories. Both Eli Ever and Victor Vale in Schwab’s tale struck me as having this syndrome as they struggle to interact with people at the prestigious university they attend. Eli is described as having studied the facial expressions people make so that he can imitate them. Victor doesn’t try that hard, but he openly struggles with social functions. They become obsessed with the subject of superpowers, and then hatefully fixated on one another when the story puts them at odds.

This is a fascinating topic to me, and I could ramble more (I’m sure there’s many more examples I could give…maybe J.R.R Tolkien? Strange the Dreamer?), but I’ll leave it at that before I lose your interest. Are there any stories with characters you think might fit this diagnosis? I’d love to hear about them!

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