Arrogant, withdrawn children may be more than simply unsociable, reports Barbara Lantin
A bird's-eye view of a school playground: children tear about, yelling and laughing; here they are kicking a football; there they cluster around a boy with a comic; small groups, large groups, children playing together. All except one, Robert. He looks sullen, withdrawn. Other children are wary: they leave him alone.

Robert never fitted in at school. Classmates found him arrogant, his mood unpredictable. Playground talk about the exploits of pop stars or the latest soap did not interest him. Classical music was his only real enthusiasm. Modern composers - Britten, Shostakovich - had fascinated him since the age of three.

In his teens, Robert joined a youth orchestra. But even here, involved in something he loved, he quickly made himself unpopular. Instead of following instructions, he would constantly interrupt to correct the conductor's "mistakes". Eventually he was asked to leave.

Today, at 32, Robert is little changed. He lives alone, screens all telephone calls and has few friends. As a teacher of orchestral music he prefers to work abroad: the language barrier means he can withdraw more easily. "Making relationships is still difficult," he says. "I lack a sense of judgement about how to behave. Sometimes I need to withdraw completely from the world. I will go to bed all day and listen to music."

Robert is a typical "loner", one of several described by Sula Wolff, former consultant child psychiatrist at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children, Edinburgh, in her recent book Loners: The Life Path of Unusual Children (Routledge). Dr Wolff has carried out the first detailed study of the condition, keeping in contact with many of her subjects for 10 to 15 years. Being a loner, she emphasises, is not the same as being lonely or shy: some of these children appear quite outgoing and talkative. But underneath they suffer profound difficulties in relating to or interacting with others, even their families. They also have a sense of being somehow "different".

"Loner children are not obviously impaired in any way," says Dr Wolff, "although some might not look you in the eye. But they have no empathy with others and no social skills. Unlike children who are shy and would love to mix better, a lot are quite happy the way they are."

Dr Wolff first identified the loner syndrome as a clinical condition nearly 30 years ago. She estimates that it may affect as many as 2 per cent of the population and says it is more common among boys than girls. She is in little doubt that like Asperger's syndrome - the type of autism with which it overlaps - it has a genetic base and is not caused by upbringing. "Loner children are no more likely to be only children, or to have suffered serious childhood stresses or poor parenting, than other children," she says. "In a number of cases, one parent has a similar personality."

Apart from the inability to form relationships, loners also prefer to stick to familiar routines and are often thrown by slight changes in circumstances. Like Robert, they can be arrogant, overestimating their own abilities. As children, loners tend to have special interests verging on obsessions - coin collecting, train-spotting, electronics - pursued single-mindedly and alone. Others create a fantasy world into which they can periodically withdraw: one child invented an island with its own language, legal and political system. The fantasy began when he was four and persisted into adult life.

These obsessions and fantasies seem to replace normal human relationships. Marian, the mother of Joel, recalls that her son "would collect facts and figures about sport and spend hours at the computer. He was never any trouble". But when friends came calling, he would slam the door in their face. "They soon gave up. He never went out to play or invited friends back. We just thought he liked his own company."

For many loners, the schooldays are the worst years of their lives, even though they may well be academically able. "School life is the period when great conformity is called for," explains Dr Wolff. "Children are supposed to be able to mix well and most do. But loners want to go their own way. If they are forced to conform they may become aggressive." Others, like Joel, withdraw and under-achieve, going unnoticed by teachers. Many, again like Joel, fall victim to bullying.

Loner children are less likely to have problems in the sheltered environment of primary school than in the more robust atmosphere at secondary level, says Eva Homes, principal educational psychologist for the borough of Enfield in north London. "We have to negotiate with schools on behalf of loners and their families, persuading the school that if the child hates the playground, for example, he should be allowed to spend playtime in the library," she says. Since loners also hate the smallest changes in routine they find it difficult to adjust to numerous different teachers in secondary schools.

How are these children best helped? A school with small classes and which has the flexibility to cope with a loner's eccentricities can help to alleviate some of the behavioural problems. Sensitive social skills training or behaviour therapy can teach acceptable conduct such as turn-taking in conversation and control of temper.

Judy Shuttleworth, head of psychotherapy services in Enfield, who works with loner children, says: "If we can help these children see that what they are saying has meaning and resonance for others, there may be an improvement in their awareness of themselves and other people. We are trying to help them become aware of their condition and perhaps lead a less lonely life.''

Dr Wolff, however, advises parents not to expect too much. "The basic personality patterns won't change, although they may become less problematic with age," she says. "If parents accept how their children are they will avoid disappointment." She is reassuring about the long- term outlook. "Once out of school, free to avoid noisy social groups and to pursue their own interests and ambitions, they can find life much easier."

Dr Wolff's follow-up studies show that many, though by no means all, loners were leading ordinary lives by their twenties, living independently and holding down jobs, although they ran a slightly higher than average risk of psychiatric problems. Marriage is not that common: a follow- up study of 32 boys found that 20 were still single in their late twenties. If loners do marry they need an emotionally independent partner who values their unusual gifts and abilities.

Like many other loners, Joel has managed to survive - in his own way. Now 19, he works as a computer technician, putting his childhood obsession to good use. "He does his job well but he doesn't mix at all with his colleagues," says his mother. "Only his boss knows that he has a problem. He has what he calls friends but they are just people he knows. When he talks to people he mumbles. He won't look them in the face."

For Arnold, 70, old age as a loner has brought more pain. "In middle age I found life easier but now I find the world a difficult place," he says. "I can't make small talk just to please people. People find me cold: I will cry at a symphony but other people's distress does not usually move me. I realise this is very hard on my wife. In the past I tried to be different for the sake of my family. Now I wish I could just shut myself away."