Janet Frame's Autobiography Reveals She Suffered Autism


The internationally-acclaimed New Zealand author Janet Frame may have had autism, says a doctor who found repeated signs of the condition in her three autobiographical books.

"Janet Frame was an interesting example of what may be achieved by those with strong autistic features," rehabilitation physician Dr Sarah Abrahamson says in today's New Zealand Medical Journal.

Dr Abrahamson, of the Queen Elizabeth Centre in Victoria, lists the key features of high-functioning autism in adults as:

* Impairment in social and high-level communication skills.

* Impairment in development of normal peer relationships.

* A special interest, which is abnormal in intensity and focus.

Dr Abrahamson said the condition was similar to Asperger's syndrome, although high-functioning autism could in addition involve delayed language development in childhood.

She said the features of high-functioning autism showed up in the autobiographies of Janet Frame, who lived from 1924 to 2004.

"In the first volume, Janet described having significant childhood language difficulties and very likely a language delay. She mispronounced many words. She also could not remember when she learnt to read, having done so very early.

"This may indicate that she had hyperlexia, an advanced ability in word recognition with relatively poor comprehension, which occurs frequently in those with autism.

"The title of her first autobiographical volume, To the Is-land, reflected her preference for the written form of words to the spoken; she insisted on mispronouncing 'Island' as it was spelt, and took some persuading that the 's' was silent."

Her interest in poetry was intense and she struggled socially. She spent years in psychiatric hospitals and was diagnosed with schizophrenia in New Zealand, only to have the diagnosis revoked at a hospital in Britain.

On her return to New Zealand after seven years overseas, she had "reached a point of self-acceptance", knowing she was different, but not mad.

Dr Abrahamson said she hoped her paper would stimulate health practitioners to consider the diagnosis of autism rather than purely a psychotic or personality disorder in patients with signs like Frame's.

"It is also to be hoped that people with these symptoms are given appropriate advice, as those treating Janet were eventually able to provide, to help them achieve their full potential."

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