Yeats may have been autistic, says psychiatrist

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The Independent Online

A claim that W B Yeats suffered from Asperger's Syndrome, a form of autism, has aroused controversy in Ireland, where he is a towering figure in the literary pantheon.

The claim about Yeats, who is regarded as Ireland's greatest poet, was made by Professor Michael Fitzgerald of Trinity College Dublin's department of child and adolescent psychiatry, who said Yeats showed classic symptoms of Asperger's, which affects social and communication skills but not learning or intellect.

Professor Fitzgerald has argued in a new book that Eamon de Valera, one of the Irish state's founding fathers, also had the condition, along with other leading figures in Irish life.

But the professor's assertion that Yeats was autistic was rejected by Roy Foster, Carroll Professor of Irish history at Oxford, who recently published the second volume of his biography of Yeats.

Speaking on Irish radio yesterday, Professor Fitzgerald said Yeats was described by his teachers as pedestrian and demoralised. "W B Yeats had tremendous difficulties at school," he said. "He was bullied. He had problems in one-to-one relationships but he was brilliant in a crowd."

He added: "His difficulties can be seen in his relationship with Maud Gonne. People couldn't understand why it went on for years when she wasn't interested. You can only understand that in terms of Asperger's Syndrome."

The professor said: "Yeats himself put it best when he said 'I have no instinct for the personal'. Yeats had problems with reading and writing and did very poorly at school. This is typical of people with the condition. They don't fit in, are odd and eccentric and relate poorly with others."

This view of Yeats was immediately challenged by Professor Foster, whose Yeats biography was published to huge acclaim. He said yesterday: "A retrospective diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome seems a pointless exercise.

"Very few of the statements quoted to me from this bear any resemblance to what we know of how Yeats struck his contemporaries. He had no difficulty with reading and writing and his teachers remarked on his 'unusual signs of genius'.

"As recorded in my first volume, in his relationships with other people - a key pointer towards autism - Yeats magnetised circles of friends all his life. He also formed close personal relationships with individuals. He was, his wife said, endlessly interested in what other people said and did. None of this squares with Asperger's Syndrome."

But Professor Fitzgerald said the syndrome was much more common than previously thought, saying he had diagnosed around 800 cases of Asperger's through his practice in Dublin.

In his book Autism and Creativity, he also suggests that Eamon de Valera's "dull speech and dark sense of humour" suggested Asperger's. He said of the former Irish Taoiseach: "He had an old gravelly voice. He was a dull pedantic professor and lacked humour."