Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Former ALP leader and foreign minister a flaming aspie with a cherry on top! And a synaesthete.

"His narcissism demanded he be the centre of attention. He demonstrated a schizoid indifference to others and lack of empathy. His paranoid defensiveness saw any criticism as a form of narcissistic injury emanating from a suspicious or conspiratorial source. His morbid suspicion of others, combined with his Machiavellianism, impulsivity, ruthlessness and mood disorders made his actions unpredictable. He had bizarre beliefs, including seeing days of the week in colours..... His rages reflected his incapacity to contain his mood states. His morbid suspicion bordered on paranoid delusion. He had no concept of “other minds”, and his inordinate self-reference and disdain for his appearance demonstrated schizotypal features."

I get the impression that the author doesn't like the man. The author has had articles published in Quadrant, and the man written about was a leader of the ALP, so I think my impression wouldn't be far from the mark.

I'm not the first reader to recognize Asperger syndrome in the characteristics described most negatively, not quite hidden among the absurd Freudian theorizing and the pseudoscientific jargon, in the article that the above quote was taken from. In the bad old days before there was any knowledge in the profesions of the typical traits and experiences of the adult autistic, and there was also a lack of public awareness of synaesthesia, adult autistic synaesthetes could expect to be given unflattering descriptions such as this (and there does appear to be some kind of link between autism and synaesthesia). The truth is that adult autistics are generally prickly characters who often aren't much liked on a personal level, despite strong positive traits such as genius and a deep concern for human rights (traits which this man apparently had). When autistics are unpopular they often get labelled with a whole bunch of unflattering Freudian terminology such as the guff in the quote above, terms which no longer have any scientific credibility. With the upcoming revision of the Diagnosic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM), which known as the bible of psychiatry, a number of personality disorders are expected to be abolished as distinct diagnoses, including schizoid PD and paranoid PD, which will cut down the repertiore of unpleasant labels that commentators will have at their disposal when describing leaders whose popularity has waned.

A current knowledge of psychology enables the well-informed to know what to make of a person who sees the days of the week in colours. This is not a "bizarre belief"; this is a harmless and quite common neurological variation known as synaesthesia. Coloured days of the week synaesthesia probably has a similar neurological basis as grapheme-colour synesthesia, a type of synaesthesia that is associated with greater connectivity in the brain's white matter. Synaesthesia is thought to be assocated with increased creativity and savant-like abilities. It is not considered to be a mental illness and is not associated with mental illness, but to the non-synaesthete the manifestations of our condition often seem very weird.

"Mood disorders" are mentioned in the quote above. It is important to check what behaviour is referred to as evidence of "mood disorders". It appears to me that the behaviour that is basis of this labelling are a bad temper of legendary proportions and very quick changes in the nature of the personality presented - a two-faced sort of person who can be charming one minute and rude and angry the next. I'm no psychiatrist, but I don't think genuine mood disorders such as bipolar really cause such rapid changes. My guess is that this could have been a person who had a fake, nice persona who let the mask slip rather often. As the man described in the above quote was a politician, who would be surprised to find this? Autistic people working in jobs that have high social demands often need to construct a fake, nice persona to present to the world, because a grouchy intense autistic personality can be not the most aesthetic thing to behold. Some autistics also genuinely seem to have a set of very different personalities according to mood, and I think this is a reflection of a genuinely unusual intensity of the experience of different moods and situations. Radiant one minute, ranting the next.

Did this man genuinely lack any concept of "other minds"? If he did he would certainly conform to the currently widely accepted idea of autism as "mindblindness". If this man did lack a concept of other minds one needs to ponder how he was able to outsmart two top officers from MI5, by picking apart a false story that they had made up to explain something without needing to divulge more of the truth than they had wanted to. The spies ended up giving more information than they had desired under the questioning of the man described in the above quotes. It was decided that he could be given access to information that was at the time being withheld from the President of the United States. Did he outsmart the spies using cold logic combined with an element of surprise due to the fact that people don't expect to be confronted with such a mind? If that is true, then I'd like to propose three cheers for mindblindness!

So, who is the man described? Dr H. V. Evatt, former leader of the ALP, past President of the UN General Assembly, former Attorney-General of Australia and Minister for External Affairs (Foreign Minister), co-drafter of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that's all. A pretty impressive list of achievements for a person who was supposedly as mad as a hatter, but I guess one can get a lot done on a schedule of two to three hours of sleep a night, especially with the aid of a razor-sharp intellect and a photographic memory. Will we ever see his like again?

Campbell, Andrew (2007) Dr H. V. Evatt - Part One: a question of sanity. National Observer. No. 73, Winter 2007, pages 25-39.
[Asperger syndrome cited as possible explanation for Evatt's personality in a comment on the article at The Free Library.]

Wikipedia contributors (accessed 2011) H. V. Evatt. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Wilson, Peter (2009) How Herbert 'Doc' Evatt outwitted MI5. Australian. October 08, 2009.
["I did not come across any other example in the history of MI5 when its representatives were so clearly out-argued by somebody." "They didn't like Evatt at all but they admitted to their own superiors that he had been too smart for them." "When the MI5 men met Chifley, Evatt, Shedden and defence minister John Dedman, it was the abrasive Evatt who poked holes in the cover story." ]

Bramston, Troy (2011) Espionage charge denied amid questions over Labor leader's mental health. Australian. April 16, 2011.

The Evatt Foundation (accessed 2011) Doc Evatt: a brilliant and controversial character. The Evatt Foundation.


  1. The current interest in the genetics and epigenetics of autism is likely to lead to widespread screening for risk factors and the elimination of the traits that made this man what he was.

    Will we ever see his like again?

    There are many scientists and doctors today, working to see this won't happen.

  2. Those bastards don't have my DNA!

  3. The last sentence in this post might have had a touch of irony.