Chris Mitchell author of Mindful Living with Asperger’s Syndrome and Asperger’s Syndrome and Mindfulness reflects upon the life and work of Dr Lorna Wing. He explores how her compassionate nature transformed our understanding of autism spectrum disorders.
The Asperger community has experienced a huge loss with the passing of Dr Lorna Wing. She was the first professional to use the term ‘Asperger’s Syndrome’ in 1981, but it was the compassionate nature she developed through being a parent of a daughter with severe autism that helped her to provide support to many others in similar situations.
Although I never had the privilege of meeting Dr Wing in person, there is much in my own life that was enabled by her work, not just that it led to me eventually obtaining my Asperger’s Syndrome diagnosis but also that helped me to develop a better understanding of myself. Tributes that came in from others diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome on the news of Wing’s passing included comments such as, ‘without her, we wouldn’t know who we are.’
When she started studying autism in the 1960s, Wing began to notice that there were many children that were affected by autism who didn’t fit with Leo Kanner’s original description. Until scientific studies started to become available in the 1960s, it was assumed that autism was the result of ‘cold parenting’ or neglect. Dr Wing’s research colleague Dr Judith Gould commented when paying tribute to her that Wing’s compassionate parenting of her own child with autism could no way be seen as the kind of cold parenting that the professionals of the day attributed to causing autism.
Having a compassionate parent can help people on the autistic spectrum develop a compassionate nature towards themselves, just as Buddhist monks in the Tibetan tradition start with their mothers to understand and develop compassionate values. Many people with Asperger’s Syndrome can very easily become victims of self-criticism and feel that the hardest person to like is themselves. It is well-documented that if they feel unable to make sense of the social world around them many people with Asperger’s Syndrome experience social isolation which results in depression.
The type of attention that one gives to feelings and moods that arouse from social isolation including ‘destructive thoughts’ such as sadness, frustration, bitterness etc. can lead to an emotional downward spiral, or what Williams et al (2007) describe as the ‘depression vortex’. The obsessive-compulsive nature present in the thinking patterns of people with Asperger’s Syndrome can effectively become ‘locked-in’ by such thoughts and feelings.
A starting point in being able to change one’s relationship with destructive thoughts can be by holding such thoughts in awareness and stepping back from the flow. Taking time to notice any tendencies you might have to label or categorise different thoughts and feelings as being either, positive, negative or destructive. Holding thoughts in awareness can help people with Asperger’s Syndrome recognise how they are affected by aspects of their condition, including responses to different thought patterns. It was Dr Wing’s recognition of Asperger’s Syndrome that enabled me to develop a better understanding of myself and realise who I am.
Understanding who you are through an Asperger Syndrome diagnosis and developing a sense of mindful self-compassion can help people to ‘befriend’ negative thoughts and emotions just by simply opening up to them, allowing them to arise and pass. Dr Wing’s legacy in coining the term Asperger’s Syndrome has made a huge difference to the lives of many in this way, including myself, in that it has helped us to know who we are. With time, knowing who we are in this way will enable us to open up to those around us.
I send my very best wishes to Dr Wing’s family and close friends, as well as my personal gratitude for what her legacy has enabled including introducing me to many dedicated and caring parents/carers of people on the autistic spectrum, contrary to the ‘cold parent’ stigma that Dr Wing and many other parents whom she supported experienced.
Lorna Wing was one of the founders of the National Autistic Society. This year, Chris will be running in Great North Run for the National Autistic Society’s Newcastle Gateshead Branch to help make a difference to the lives of both people with autism and their parents. Visit Chris’s sponsorship page.