Beyond Asperger Syndrome
Introduction: The Childhood Picture
Among children referred to a child psychiatry department about
4%, more boys than girls (3.5:1), presented in middle childhood
with common child psychiatric symptoms or educational difficulties
but without the adverse circumstances that usually explain these.
Over half the children were outgoing but some were withdrawn
and uncommunicative, and occasionally they had had selective
mutism. They often caused great concern to parents and teachers
because they could not conform to ordinary social demands,
reacting with weeping, rage or aggression if pressed to do so
(Wolff, 1995). Their pre-school development was sometimes
unusual but rarely worrying. Specific developmental delays were
common; and parents complained of their children's difficulties in
adapting to new circumstances; their obstinacy and ritualistic
behaviour; emotional remoteness; and a "lack of feeling". School
entry usually precipitated the clinic referral because the children
could not relate to their peers or meet classroom demands for
At the time a diagnosis of "schizoid personality disorder" was
made because the children resembled descriptions of this in the
literature and in ICD-9 (World Health Organisation, 1978), the
diagnostic scheme then in use. This label was applied to
conditions now comprising the Type A personality disorders
(schizotypal, paranoid and schizoid) of DSM-IV (American
Psychiatric Association, 1994). We realised at once that our
children were like those described by Asperger (1944; see also
Frith, 1991), except that our group included girls (Wolff and
Chick, 1980). The diagnoses we would now consider more
appropriate for these children are mild Asperger or schizotypal
The following core features characterised the children:
(ii) lack of empathy and emotional detachment
(iii) increased sensitivity at time with paranoid ideas
(iv) rigidity of mental set, especially the single minded pursuit of
(v) unusual or odd styles of communication (such as over or
under communicativeness, vagueness, and odd use of
One further feature was later discovered, which Asperger too
described: (vi) an unusual fantasy life. Like Asperger, we found
many parents to have similar personality traits.
We operationalised the core features and for each child
diagnosed schizoid, we identified as a control, another clinic
attender, matched as well as possible for sex, age, occupational
background, IQ, and year of referral. A case note analysis was
done for 32 matched pairs of schizoid and control boys and for 33
matched pairs of girls (Wolff and McGuire, 1995).
The mean age at referral of the schizoid children was ten years
and the mean maximum IQ was 109 for boys and 103 for girls
(Wolff and McGuire, 1995). Among 32 schizoid boys, 16
presented with common child psychiatric symptoms, including
conduct disorder, mixed conduct and emotional disorder, school
refusal, soiling, and hyperkinesis; and six with educational
failure. Only 10 presented with the features of schizoid
Among the 33 schizoid girls comorbidity was even more common,
24 presenting with other child psychiatric disorders; 5 with
educational failure. In contrast to the controls, pure emotional
disorder was very rare, but conduct disorder was as common in
schizoid as in control boys, and more common in schizoid girls
than in their controls. Asperger too drew attention to the
frequency of conduct disorders, even "maliciousness", in the
children he described.
Of the core features, being a 'loner' and having 'unusual
fantasies' significantly differentiated schizoid girls and boys from
their controls. Having special interest patterns differentiated
highly between schizoid and control boys, but not between the
girls among whom this was rare. Impaired empathy, excessive
sensitivity and odd styles of communication, all, as predicted,
characteristic features of schizoid children in later life (see below),
had rarely been recorded in childhood.
An important finding was that significantly more schizoid than
control children had specific developmental delays of language,
educational or motor functioning, serious or multiple in half the
schizoid boys and a third of schizoid girls. Asperger too had found
clumsiness and educational delays to be common in his children.
In our groups, three schizoid boys but no schizoid girls had had
earlier symptoms suggestive of autism, but never the full
syndrome beginning under the age of three years. Four schizoid
children had been selectively mute, and two had had serious
developmental language delays. These two children, of normal
intelligence, did not differ symptomatically from other schizoid
children, and by the time of follow-up, their language had
The Follow-Up Studies
These aimed firstly, to validate the syndrome, with the idea that,
if the childhood syndrome was the beginning of a well known
adult personality disorder, we should be able to recognise this
and its core features when the children were grown-up; and
second, to determine the adult life adjustment of "schizoid"
children. We devised a focused interview designed to capture the
postulated core features and enable an overall diagnosis of
schizoid personality disorder to be made, as well as ratings of
psychiatric morbidity, work adjustment, friendships, intimate
relationships, and social integration. More recent instruments for
assessing personality disorders congruent with current diagnostic
classifications were not then available.
In the two follow-up studies, when the children were of mean
ages 22 and 27 years (Wolff and Chick, 1980; Wolff, 1995),
interviewers were "blind" to the childhood data and inter-rater
reliabilities were adequate. On both occasions the overall
diagnosis differentiated extremely well between schizoid and
control young people, as did ratings of the five core features of
the condition as well as one other symptom: an unusual fantasy
life. We also found that the children grown-up were not
excessively "introverted" on Eysenck's extra/introversion scales,
and that a test for "psychological construing", that is the
attribution of emotions and motivations to people in
photographs, differentiated schizoid young men significantly from
their controls and was related to interviewer ratings of "impaired
empathy" (Chick et al, 1979), which we might now equate with
impaired mentalizing abilities or "theory of mind".
The second follow-up interview incorporated a schedule for
schizotypal personality (SSP) which showed 75% of schizoid men
and women to fulfil the criteria for this (Wolff, 1995).
An important finding was that the schizoid children grown-up were
far less impaired in psychosocial functioning than people currently
given a diagnosis of Asperger syndrome (Tantam, 1991), thus
resembling Asperger's original description. They had higher rates
of treatment for psychiatric disorders compared with the controls,
and their rate of working harmoniously at their expected level of
occupation and, in boys, their rate of having had an intimate
sexual relationship were significantly reduced. But their rates of
independent living, of marriage, and stability of employment
were not statistically different from those of the controls. Only
one of 49 schizoid children followed-up was in residential care
compared with over half the 60 patients with Asperger syndrome
diagnosed by Tantam (1988a).
Two conclusions follow for the clinician: 1) there is a group of
children, not nearly as impaired as children with autism or
Asperger syndrome as currently defined (WHO, 1992 and 1993;
APA, 1994), who need to be diagnosed because their more
subtle, underlying difficulties are very long lasting, and schools
and families need to accommodate to the children's special
personality make-up; and 2) their overall outcome is reasonably
Schizoid Personality In Childhood And Later Psychiatric
Morbidity: Is There A Link With Schizophrenia?
Because the features of our children resembled schizotypal
personality disorder and because in later life most fulfilled the
criteria for this, we wanted to find out whether they had an excess
of schizophrenic illnesses. A records survey was undertaken of all
psychiatric hospital admissions in Scotland of the total cohorts we
had seen of 109 schizoid men and 32 schizoid women, then over
16 years, and of their matched controls of other psychiatrically
referred children (Wolff, 1995).
Seven schizoid children but only one control had developed
schizophrenia. Overall, 5.0% of schizoid young people and 0.7%
of controls were affected at a mean age of 26.5 years, compared
with an estimated population prevalence rate in the UK by 27
years of 0.31 - 0.49%. The numbers, though small, suggest that
the risk for schizophrenia in schizoid children, while sufficiently low
for a good prognosis to be given in childhood, is about ten times
greater than that of other referred children and of the general
population. This, together with their clinical features, support the
notion that they have a schizophrenia spectrum disorder.
Two of the 32 schizoid boys followed-up, had transient delusional
and hallucinatory states in childhood (consonant with the features
of schizotypy) in response to stressful experiences. These
symptoms responded well to psychotropic medication. While one
of the boys subsequently had episodes of minor depression,
neither developed a psychosis in later life.
The psychiatric records survey also showed that schizoid children
made more use of psychiatric services in adult life than their
controls. Our first follow-up had revealed an excess of depressive
symptoms (Wolff and Chick, 1980), often in response to
increasing self-awareness of social difficulties. The rate of suicide
in our total cohorts of schizoid people was also increased: 4.0%
compared with none among the controls and a population
prevalence rate by the same age of 0.0026%.
Schizoid Personality And Later Delinquency
Because our children had often had co-morbid conduct disorders
and because Asperger syndrome has been found associated with
unusual delinquent acts in adult life, we undertook a Criminal
Records search for the total cohorts of 109 schizoid boys and 32
schizoid girls then over the age of 16, and of their controls
(Wolff, 1995). Not surprisingly, in all groups of these
psychiatrically referred children grown-up, the percentage of
people with convictions was greater than that expected for the
general population of the same age. 32% of schizoid men and
34.5% of schizoid women had recorded convictions, compared
with 34.5% and 15.5% of the controls. Comparable population
norms were 22% for men and 5% for women. Schizoid women
thus had exceptionally high rates of criminality.
There was no difference in the nature of offences between
schizoid and control groups and none had committed an
especially violent crime. But some years later, one of the schizoid
men committed a seriously aggressive sexual assault, having
adopted an alias and false identity (Wolff, 1995). He had been a
charming but totally solitary child with serious specific
developmental learning difficulties, always unpredictably
aggressive, and frequently excluded from school.
In contrast to the controls, adult convictions in the schizoid group
were strongly associated with aggressive behaviour in childhood.
The one feature that appeared to protect against later
delinquency, in both schizoid and control groups, was a childhood
presentation with a pure emotional disorder. This occurred in 20
of the 65 controls but in only 5 of 65 schizoid children.
How Can Treatment Help?
In the absence of controlled treatment studies, this section is
based on clinical experience alone.
The first important step is to recognise the condition and convey
to child, parents, and teachers that the difficulties stem from the
child's make up. If other members of the family have similar
traits this can be reassuring because affected parents tend to
manage their lives quite well and hope for an improved future
adjustment can be more realistically based. It is important to
make clear that neither parents nor ill will on the part of the child
are to blame for the problem. It must be stressed that the child's
basic personality features are not likely to change and that family
and school will have to accommodate to his or her special needs.
On the other hand, treatment of associated symptoms: specific
educational delays, aggressive outbursts, stealing, depression or,
more rarely, hyperkinesis and attention deficit disorder, or
delusional experiences, can be very effective. The treatment and
interventions so clearly outlined by Klin and Volkmar (1997) for
Asperger syndrome apply also to the children here described.
Special educational measures are often needed. Affected children
may find the hurly burly of the playground intolerable and need
to be allowed to seek refuge in a quiet place instead. Often too,
they are helped by being excused from team games. Remedial
teaching for associated specific educational impairments is
indicated; as well as small group teaching when a noisy
classroom is more than the child can manage. If he cannot be
motivated for prescribed classwork, the curriculum needs to be
built around his special interests. If there is severe educational
retardation or if the behaviour at school is intolerable because of
aggressive outbursts, eccentricities provoking to other children, or
other symptoms such as oppositional behaviour, aggression,
depression, stealing or school refusal special schooling has to be
Behavioural treatment approaches for aggressive outbursts can
be very effective; and social skills training can improve peer
relationships. Conduct and emotional disorders are usually a
reaction to the child's inability to tolerate even mild pressures for
conformity to ordinary school life, and in a less demanding
setting, such behaviour often ceases. But a small minority of the
children are aggressively delinquent whatever their environment,
and may then be exposed to the juvenile justice system. When
custody is demanded by a court, schizoid children fare better in a
small residential school, community, or psychiatric unit, where not
all the residents are delinquent so that the level of aggression is
low; where the staff is well trained in the care of disturbed
children; and the staff/child ratio is high. They do not do well in
large, noisy institutions for young offenders, where bullying and
violence predominate and there is little privacy.
When hyperkinesis is associated, medication is as helpful as for
other hyperkinetic children; and psychotropic medication is
indicated during transient delusional and/or hallucinatory states.
Long term psychotropic medication has no place in the treatment
of these children.
The primary tasks of psychiatrist or psychologist, however, are to
provide long term, even if infrequent, support for the family as
they negotiate the child's path through school into further
education and a working life; and to act as the child's advocate in
relation to the school and school psychological services. Here a
diagnosis of "Asperger syndrome", now familiar and acceptable,
may be more helpful in facilitating access to services than the
rather vague label of "constitutional personality disorder",
although the diagnostic criteria for Asperger syndrome may not
It is also important to maintain an optimistic stance: both
Asperger and we ourselves found that the children's adjustment
improves with age once the pressures for conformity, always
greatest during the school years, are at an end and they can find
their own niche in life. The outlook is particularly good for schizoid
children of high ability without comorbid aggressiveness.
Changing Diagnostic Concepts
The term "schizoid" was coined by Eugene Bleuler to describe
shut-in, suspicious, sensitive people within the normal range of
personality variation. Such features Bleuler found premorbidly in
half his patients with schizophrenia who, even as children, stood
out because they could not play with others, followed their own
ways instead, and were regarded as strange by other children
because of their odd, intellectual characteristics (see Wolff,
1995). In 1926 Ssucharewa (see also Wolff, 1996) wrote the first
account of six boys, clinically resembling Asperger's cases as well
as our own, under the title "Schizoid personality disorder of
Recent diagnostic classifications substitute the term "schizotypal"
for what was previously called "schizoid" personality disorder, and
in 1986 Nagy and Szatmari described 20 "schizotypal" children,
recognising their similarity to our own cases, as well as to
Asperger's (1944) and Wing's (1981). Their features were social
isolation, social anxiety, magical thinking, bizarre preoccupations,
poor rapport and odd speech. The authors thought the disorder
might be a mild form of autism or a variant of adult
schizophrenia. Two of the children later developed schizophrenia.
Szatmari subsequently dropped the term "schizotypal" in favour
of Asperger syndrome.
We realised from the start that our children resembled Asperger's
cases (Wolff and Chick, 1980). He stressed the children's
giftedness, the association with maliciousness and unusual
fantasy. He reported the social disability to decrease in adulthood
when, despite continuing difficulties in intimate relationships,
work adjustment was often excellent. This contrasts with more
recent accounts of people with Asperger syndrome (Tantam,
1988a and b; Tantam, 1991; and Wing, 1992), who were rarely
able to lead independent lives or maintain employment, and
hardly ever married. Most of Tantam's patients had the triad of
impairments typical of autism in early childhood, although not
always beginning under the age of three, and most also scored
highly on a measure for schizoid/schizotypal personality. This was
thought to be secondary to the developmental disorder.
There are two reasons for preferring the schizoid/schizotypal label
for the children we have studied, unless the category of Asperger
syndrome is specifically modified.
First, the children do not meet the criteria for Asperger syndrome
of ICD-10 (WHO, 1992; 1993) or DSM-IV (APA, 1994). They do
not have the abnormalities of reciprocal social interaction, nor the
restrictive, repetitive, stereotyped patterns of behaviour "as for
autism". Our children's features resemble those of autism, but
are not the same. ICD-10 criteria include the absence of clinically
significant general delay in spoken or receptive language or
cognitive development; and they include circumscribed interests
or restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped behaviours. An exclusion
criterion is schizotypal disorder, but the definition includes
schizoid disorder of childhood and autistic psychopathy. DSM-IV
criteria also exclude significant delay of language and cognitive
development; indicate that the disturbance causes clinically
significant impairment in social, occupational or other areas of
functioning; and differentiates the disorder from schizoid
A few of our children were of below normal intelligence and some
had early language delays, occasionally severe. And it is now
known that severe developmental language disorder can be
associated both with social oddities and impaired intimate
relationships as well as an increased risk of later paranoid
psychosis (Mawhood, 1995).
In ICD-10, the criterion of circumscribed interest patterns or
restricted and stereotyped behaviour does not really capture the,
often sophisticated, special interests of our schizoid young
people. In the most intelligent of the schizoid men, such
interests formed the basis for a successful career choice: in
astrophysics and graphic design. Only in a few of the less
intellectually gifted, could their special interests be described as
restricted and repetitive.
Finally, an unusual fantasy life, occasionally amounting to
pathological lying and the adoption of aliases, was prominent in
some of our cases, as indeed it was in Asperger's too, and should
be mentioned as a diagnostic feature of Asperger syndrome, if
the schizoid group here described is to be included within this
As Klin and Volkmar (1997) indicate, the diagnosis of Asperger
syndrome has been defined in varying ways, and according to
current diagnostic criteria, it cannot unequivocably be
differentiated from high functioning autism. Prior et al (1998), in
a cluster analysis, also found no clear demarcation between high
functioning children diagnosed as having autism, Asperger's
syndrome or other pervasive developmental disorders, merely
differences in social and cognitive impairments. In particular,
early language delay or deviance did not differentiate between
the groups of children. Yet none of our children had ever fulfilled
the criteria for autism.
A second reason for not classifying our children within the
pervasive developmental disorders is because different diagnostic
labels should not be used for the same condition merely because
it is recognised in childhood rather than later life. Yet researchers
into schizotypal personality in adult life do not always read the
child psychiatric literature. Olin et al (1997) for example,
overlooking the work of ourselves and of Nagy and Szatmari
(1986), in a study of teacher ratings of school behaviour in
adolescents later diagnosed as having a schizotypal personality
disorder, state that "no study" has yet reported on the early
behaviour of people given this diagnosis. Their teacher ratings
characterising these youngsters included being lonely; content
with isolation; anxious with peers; having disturbed and
inappropriate behaviour; and disciplinary problems.
In summary, the children we described could be classified either
as having a schizoid/schizotypal personality disorder whose
diagnostic criteria they fulfil, or as having Asperger's autistic
psychopathy according to Asperger's original description. The
current diagnostic category of Asperger syndrome is inappropriate
unless its criteria both in DSM-IV and ICD-10 are modified to
omit the exclusion of significant delays in speech and language
and of schizoid and schizotypal disorders; to specify the less
severe social impairments and more sophisticated all-absorbing
interests in comparison with autism; and to include a criterion for
Could The Disorder We Called "Schizoid" Belong Both To The
Autistic And The Schizophrenia Spectrum?
Links with the autistic spectrum
The individual features of schizoid personality in childhood
resemble the symptoms of autism and Asperger syndrome but,
as we have seen, they are not the same.
Yet there may be a genetic relationship between autism,
Asperger syndrome and our "schizoid" or schizotypal group.
Autism and Asperger syndrome have been found in members of
the same families (Gillberg, 1991); parents of autistic children
have an excess of mild schizoid personality traits (Wolff et al,
1988); both twin and family studies of autistic children have
shown an excess of cognitive and social deficits, as well as
repetitive, stereotyped behaviour, milder but similar to those of
autism itself, in non-affected identical twins and first degree
relatives of autistic people (Bailey et al, 1996; Bolton et al, 1994;
Fombonne et al, 1997; LeCouteur et al, 1996). To these
disorders the labels "lesser variant" or "broader phenotype" of
autism have been applied, and language delay and reading and
spelling difficulties are now recognised as constituting a part of
this (Rutter et al, 1999a) . Only one case of Asperger syndrome
was found among these relatives, perhaps because associated
language delays at present preclude this diagnosis. Yet it would
be strange if the clinical features of individuals demonstrably
sharing the genes of people with autism, were different from
those of the clinically recognised autism spectrum disorders, such
as Asperger syndrome or our "schizoid" group, which Rutter
(1999) sees as either "mild autism" or "some different
Links with the schizophrenia spectrum
We need to be clear that, while schizoid and schizotypal
characteristics are found to excess premorbidly in patients,
especially men, with schizophrenia (Foerster et al, 1991), very few
children with such personality disorders will, as our study showed,
go on to develop this illness. Ssucharewa too (Wolff, 1996)
stressed that the schizoid disorder she described in childhood was
the same as that seen premorbidly in schizophrenic patients, but
that the children's condition was stable and did not deteriorate.
Our children shared many features described for children who
later develop schizophrenia. In a case-control study of juvenile
schizophrenia, Hollis (1995) found an excess of children with
specific developmental language delays of expressive and
receptive language, specific developmental motor impairments,
and abnormalities of social development, in particular, poor peer
relationships, shyness and social withdrawal. Jacobsen and
Rapoport (1998) document premorbid developmental delays of
speech and language and transient symptoms of pervasive
developmental disorders in childhood onset schizophrenia. The
British National birth cohort studies showed that children who
developed schizophrenia as adults had specific developmental
delays as well as solitariness and socially inappropriate behaviour
(Jones et al, 1994; Done et al, 1994). Thus the precursors of
schizophrenia consist both of solitariness and impaired social
skills as well as specific developmental delays, including
language delays, apparently resembling the broader autism
Schizotypal and other Type A personality disorders are found to
excess also among biological relatives, especially men, of
patients with schizophrenia (Kremen et al, 1998). The
considerable discordance for schizophrenia between MZ twins one
of whom is affected, is explained, as for the discordance between
MZ twins one of whom has autism, on the basis that the
schizophrenia genotype is not expressed unless released by
some kind of, possibly prenatal, stressors (Gottesman, and
To reconcile the possibility of a common genetic factor or factors
for autism and schizophrenia, manifesting with variable
expressivity as features of schizoid/schizotypal/Asperger
disorders, with the fact that autism and schizophrenia do not
co-aggregate in families, we would need to postulate that for
autism as well as schizophrenia other genetic factors, different for
each condition, as well as possible environmental stressors, are
among the necessary causes.
Rutter (1999b) has recently suggested that genetic effects may
be related to specific facets of a disorder or even to dimensional
vulnerability traits, rather than to the psychiatric condition as a
1.Current diagnostic criteria for Asperger syndrome identify only
the more seriously impaired patients within the groups described
by Asperger and ourselves. More mildly affected children and
adults, some of whom are gifted, need to have the nature of
their difficulties recognised as constitutionally determined, so that
their symptoms are not erroneously attributed to faulty
upbringing. The diagnosis is often obscured by co-morbidity.
2.Associated specific developmental disorders need special
educational provisions; and associated conduct and other
psychiatric disorders require realistic treatment approaches. The
children's special interests and gifts need to be preserved and
fostered; and psychiatric or psychological support for child and
family should continue for many years. Although the children are
not as impaired as children currently given an Asperger syndrome
diagnosis, the problems they pose to their families and schools
are often formidable.
3.It may be difficult to reconcile the fact that "schizoid personality
disorder" appears to lie at one end of the autistic spectrum where
it merges with normal personality variation, while there is also
evidence linking it to the schizophrenia spectrum. Etiologically the
problem is less serious. Both schizophrenia and autism are now
regarded as neurodevelopmental disorders on a genetic basis,
each involving several genes. And both in autism and during
schizophrenic episodes similar deficits in mentalizing ability and
language have been found (Corcoran et al, 1997; Drury et al,
1998; Frith, 1992); Baltaxe and Simmons, 1992).
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