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Health: Loners may suffer from autism

The eccentric academic with a collection of rocks in the attic, an encyclopaedic knowledge of train timetables and a non-existent social life may be suffering from a mental disorder.

Autism, the condition characterised by social withdrawal, lack of empathy and indifference to others may affect people in a mild form so that it merges into "what can be called eccentric normality", according to a leading psychiatrist.

The condition, which is thought to affect up to 5,000 people and has a genetic cause, is marked by problems of social interaction, communication and imagination. Autistic people lack the capacity to read social situations, tend to be socially clumsy and suffer isolation as a result. It is fascinating because it disturbs something that is at the core of being human.

Dr Lorna Wing of the Centre for Social and Communication Disorders in Bromley, Kent, says that although most people have an image of autism as severely disabling, in some sufferers impairment is so subtle that they may be seen as simply loners. They tend to be absorbed in their own interests and lack empathy for others. Some marry but partners tend to feel a lack of emotional rapport.

Writing in the Lancet, Dr Wing says there is no cure, but people with autism can be helped with education tailored to their disabilities. Their schooldays are often stressful because they will not conform to demands of teachers or fellow pupils.

"Most are happier as adults and may follow successful careers, sometimes of high academic distinction. Some learn the rules of social interaction by rote, while others remain solitary by choice."

However, she adds: "High functioning people with autistic disorders have been able to describe their experiences of the world as a confusing and frightening place."