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American Normal: The Hidden World of Asperger Syndrome Hardcover – 4 Oct 2002

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From the reviews:

"Osborne uses his considerable journalistic talents to interview a number of well-known … and some not-so-well-known people diagnosed with an enigmatic disorder known as Asperger’s Syndrome. … Recommended for readers at all levels." (K. M. Dillon, Choice Middletown, February, 2003)

"In the US, Asperger’s Syndrome - a psychiatric disorder … has become a rallying point for a diverse and often incompatible range of interests. While the UK isn’t showing any signs of jumping on the Asperger’s bandwagon … books and articles on the subject makes it hard to ignore. Osborne’s better than most because it takes the opposite tack, making the similarities between Asperger’s sufferers and unaffected people bigger than the differences. … This is an accessible book that’s enjoyable and informative … ." (Emma Thomas, Focus, November, 2003)

From the Back Cover


Thomas Jefferson may have had it. The pianist Glenn Gould almost certainly had it. There are even those who insist (probably incorrectly) that Albert Einstein had it. Yet whether it is called "geek syndrome," "high-functioning autism," or simply "Asperger's," it is not just one of the most poorly understood of all psychiatric diagnosis, but one of the fastest growing in America today.

In this highly personal first-hand report on the world of the "mindblind," Lawrence Osborne doesn't shy away from hard questions: Just how different from the "normal" are those with Asperger's, and is it possible that most of us have more than a few of its characteristics already woven into our psyches? Setting aside the humdrum pieties of medicine and rehabilitation, Osborne casts a skeptical and witty eye on the American psychiatric establishment and its tendency to over-diagnose, then over-medicate. And even more, he ventures into the elusive but essential realm where one has to question the difference between tolerating eccentricity- with all its potential for creativity as well as suffering - and pharmacologically enforcing normality, with its undertones of blandness, uniformity and mediocrity.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 13 reviews
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
He does not get it 11 Nov. 2006
By Ming - Published on
Format: Hardcover
As an adult Aspie, I found Osborne's portrayal of Asperger's Syndrome to be tedious and tendentious. Even though the condition may be somewhat amorphous, there is a clear distinction between Aspies and non-Aspies. The otherness is what defines Asperger's Syndrome. Osborne attempts to raise the question regarding our very conception of normalcy and the long running theme of the book is the idea that perhaps everyone is on the spectrum in some way or another. That is, despite all its weirdness, there is nothing all that abnormal about Asperger's Syndrome. The message is hopeful in that it opens the gates to social acceptance, but I do think that he tends to underplay the severe problems that autistic individuals have in integrating into society.

However often it gets told, the story of the Aspie getting humiliated and then fired from a job, drifting downwards as he claws at any available opportunity, getting fired again, and again, before finally reaching a dead end, is perhaps THE story about Asperger's Syndrome. Geniuses have always been exceptions. Whilst it is heartwarming to think that men like Glenn Gould and Thomas Jefferson may have been autistic too, such trivia provides only a false sense of comfort to the 99.999% of Aspies who do not possess those extreme talents. What hope is there for the Aspie who does not possess the savant like skills in music? How many of us will ever turn out to be like Einstein?

Parts of the book had been published in the New York Times Magazine and as befits anything that is published in that august newspaper, the writing is of a high standard. However, Osborne writes as a man who is a professional writer. It is apparent that he has honed his craft and has learned how to reach for the metaphors and the similes. But the style feels a little too commercial, and the words often a little contrived.

Of the many and growing publications on Asperger's Syndrome, I would say that "American Normal" is perhaps one of the better offerings. Books written by Aspies tend to be wooden and excessively direct. Books written by parents of Aspies are usually too homely and thoughtlessly hopeful. Books written by the researchers are typically too specialized to be of any use to the lay reader. While I do sincerely believe that "American Normal" fails to shed any real insight into the lives and tribulations of an Aspie, it is useful for those who are beginning to apprehend the mysteries of the autistic mind. One should probably not be too critical of those who write of enigmas.
19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
Why are you writing this book? I don't know 18 Oct. 2003
By L. M. Lemieux - Published on
Format: Hardcover
While I was reading American Normal, I kept asking myself, why is he writing this book. Someone finally asks the author the same question, and his answer is, "I don't know." I have a theory. Osborne started out to write a book showing that AS is an imaginary problem coined to put labels on eccentrics. When halfway through the book his research shows him that it's quite a lot more than that, in fact a real syndrome completely different from just "a little eccentricity", he is lost. He no longer knows why he is writing. He keeps mentioning drugs. There are no drugs in the treatment of AS itself. He keeps metioning psychiatrists. It's a neurological disorder, not a psychiatric disorder. He meets, casually, a few Aspies, and suddenly he's an expert. This book mostly made me angry, as it would anyone who knows someone with AS. He seems often to think the whole this is a joke. After all, he's eccentric, and he doesn't have it... Worst book I've read on autism yet. Pity
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
Should be read carefully and with an open mind 19 Dec. 2005
By Dennis Littrell - Published on
Format: Hardcover
I think Osborne made a strategic error in the way he wrote this book. I believe his intent was to identify and empathize with those who suffer from Asperger's Syndrome. To this end he showed us how he, a "neurotypical," does things that might be considered Aspergerish, such as giving in to an obsessive need to circle lamp posts or to watch every episode of the Japanese TV show "Iron Chef" or to only feel comfortable at Red Roof Inns, etc. In his interviews with Aspies he took a sometimes playful tone, and in his retrospective of people who may (or may not) have had AS, he emphasized the eccentric nature of their lives, not their suffering. The effect of this approach on Aspies themselves was to make them feel that he was trivializing AS. Some even felt he was making fun of them.

Furthermore, in his effort to suggest that AS can be seen as an alternative approach to life (or at least an attempt at one) he ran into those who want to make it clear that Asperger's is a neurological disease and that most (if not all) who suffer from it are not curious "little professors." They and their friends and relatives (and the therapeutic community administering to them) do not want to read anything that in any way might mislead the general public into thinking that Aspies are just weird eccentrics.

In other words, he missed the psychology of the larger AS community. People who are distinct minorities in a larger community, as Aspies are, and who feel discriminated against because they are different (and the larger society surely does discriminate against them)--such people are not likely to welcome a satirical or playful approach to their situation. They tend to be serious and understandably intolerant of anything that might threaten their dignity. And they are right in feeling this way because throughout human history it is only one step from making fun of people to ostracizing them.

Also one gets the sense that more than anything Osborne was satisfying his curiosity. He became the journalist who travels around interviewing AS people to find out what they are like. He reported what he saw and heard. For readers who know little or nothing about AS, this approach has its merit. For those who have AS or are friends or relatives of people with AS, this approach is not only not interesting, it is of little value.

The AS people also feel that such an approach does not best serve the general public. What they want are books that inform the larger community about AS in a factual manner complete with an understanding of the problems that Aspies have to deal with vis-a-vis governmental bureaucracies, school administrators, daily life, etc. They are not going to be pleased with a book about AS that is largely an entertainment. Osborne missed all of this. I am sure he was absolutely shocked and dismayed at the reception his book received from the AS community.

On a more positive note, like me say that Osborne is a very good writer. He worked hard to make his book accessible to the reader, and, yes, entertaining and very readable. He balanced the interviews with Aspies with information about historical figures like famed pianist Glenn Gould and our second president Thomas Jefferson and others who might have suffered from AS. He did this in an attempt to give as broad a picture as possible. He even compares AS to other neurological diseases such as latah and koro in an attempt to show how such disorders are affected by cultural norms in different countries.

What I think Osborne was trying to do is follow the ideas of Dr. Mel Levine, Professor of Pediatrics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, whom he quotes as saying that "American psychiatry embodies a deeply pessimistic, gloomily simplistic view of the world" and is "Unable to conceive of a healthy eccentricity..." And so it resorts to "reductionist labeling." In particular, the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders is replete with "dubious disorders" which "children are shoehorned into." (pp. xiv-xv)

He further observes (still relying on Levine) that "the codes [from DSM-IV] are quick and convenient, especially for the purposes of filling out insurance forms and getting reimbursed, but they bear little relation to the complexity of people's lives." In other words, the whole idea of syndromes as defined by the DSM-IV is a convenience for the administrating and "therapeutic" community, and not for the patients or those with neurological differences.

In the long run I think we are going to find that Osborne is on the side of the angels, and that his approach which emphasizes the similarities between those with AS and those they label "neurotypical" is better than an approach that stigmatizes people whose behavior is different.

Don't misunderstand me, please. I have seen people with autism and other mental disorders and they are very real and in some cases terribly disabling. However, I think whenever possible we ought to tolerate individual differences and not put depreciating labels on them.

Finally Osborne asks the telling question, "What would it mean to 'cure' a personality disorder?" "We might ask whether a personality disorder should be cured at all...Do we even really know what a personality is in the first place, and by what impertinence do we affect to lay down its laws?" (p. 185) The truth is in most cases we don't understand either the etiology of these so-called disorders or have any idea of what we can or should do about them. In some cases we might ask should we "fix" the individual or the society?

I think Osborne has made some important points here, and that an open-minded reading of his book would reveal the author as a person who has thought long and hard on the subject of AS and one who appreciates individual differences.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
The next evolution? 16 Aug. 2006
By Diane Finkle - Published on
Format: Hardcover
I agree with many of the reviewers who have expressed their thoughts below. Lawrence Osbourne is a brilliant writer and I totally enjoyed reading this book. Like other reviewers, I often wondered if the book was really just an excuse for a rather self indulgent exploration of his own Aspie symptoms, but I was willing to put that aside and enjoy his wonderful, descriptive prose and his engaging profiles of son many unique and gifted individuals.

I picked up the book because as the mother of an Aspie (and yes, I have a lot of the traits myself), I have always wondered if autism might represent the next step in the evolution of our minds. As we move into this computerized age, so many of our guides seem to be imbued with noticible Aspie traits - I've even heard that everyone in Silicon Valley for example is somewhere "on the spectrum".

I appreciated Osborne's humourous but respectful portrayal of Asperger's Syndrome and as I finished the book I felt more positive than I have in a while about my son's future and the incredible potential that he has.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
take it for what it's worth 24 May 2004
By A Customer - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is not meant as a thorough investigation of autism, including different treatment methods and exploration of what may or may not cause it. Instead it takes a rather idiosyncratic approach to the disease, exploring mostly people who have Asperger's Disorder, a "less severe" form of the disease. I mean less severe as in being more able to "pass" for normal. People with Asperger's generally have high IQs and excellent verbal skills. Well, some do and some don't.
If there's anything this book shows, is that the line between Asperger's and normal is fluid. The author interviews many families whose children have the disease (or are believed to have it). Although at times, he does seem to imply that people with Aspergers are just harmless eccentrics, I don't think he is actually trying to make a case that Asperger's doesn't exist. But with the kind of approach the book takes it is hard to tell.
What is enjoyable is the subjects themselves, some of whom seem too impaired for everyday living, and others who that isn't true of at all. It is also interesting to see how the parents cope with their Asperger's child, many of whom here seemed to have learned to take the behavior in stride. Look for clinical information elsewhere.
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