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May 2011



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Lorna Wing

Lorna Wing … ‘When Susie was diagnosed there was no support for parents and children. We felt so suddenly different.’ Photograph: David Levene

Her daughter’s diagnosis led psychiatrist Lorna Wing to dedicate her life to increasing our knowledge of autism

Giulia Rhodes

The Guardian , Tuesday 24 May 2011

Lorna Wing can recall the exact moment she realised that her daughter, Susie, was different. They were on a train, sitting opposite another mother and baby, also around six months old. The other child pointed at things through the window, glancing back at his mother to check her attention. It was, explains Wing, something that Susie never did. “A cold chill settled over me and I became very worried,” she says.

Despite years of medical training, Lorna and her husband John, both psychiatrists, knew nothing about autism when Susie was born in 1956. “It might have been mentioned once in a lecture, but as for facts or prevalence, no one knew anything.” So Susie’s diagnosis, at three, left them reeling.

Determined to change things for children like Susie, and their parents, Lorna switched her professional attention. More than 50 years later, she is one of the world’s leading experts in the field, and in 1962 helped found the National Autistic Society. Her research has been instrumental in defining autism as a spectrum, ranging from those severely affected to the – previously ignored – very high functioning. In 1981 she coined the term Asperger’s syndrome (after Hans Asperger, an Austrian doctor who first recorded autistic tendencies in children with high IQs), a sub-group of autism without learning disability, thought to include Albert Einstein.

Now 83 and semi-retired, Wing is delighted that the world of autism is unrecognisable from those dark days. “When Susie was diagnosed there was no support for parents and children,” she recalls. “We felt so suddenly and unexpectedly different to everyone else. Now there is a lot out there, and there are lots of good books. The huge change that has happened is the general recognition that autism exists,” she says.

In the 1950s the condition was thought to affect four or five children in 10,000. Today’s greater awareness, and the work of Wing and her colleagues, places its prevalence at around one in 100: a ratio Wing considers accurate but it has led to claims of an autism epidemic. Wing says: “I can’t see any evidence for an increase in numbers. There are more diagnoses because we now know about the brighter children as well. But who knows? It is conceivable that human beings are evolving to have  more autistic traits because they are so useful.”

Another change has been a focus on the positive elements of autism; a kind of autism pride. “I do believe you need autistic traits for real success in science and the arts, and I am fascinated by the behaviours and personalities of musicians and scientists,” says Wing. She also believes that most of us have some autistic traits. “One of my favourite sayings is that nature never draws a line without smudging it. You cannot separate into those ‘with’ and ‘without’ traits as they are so scattered.”

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