Dr. Lorna Wing, a British psychiatrist who was instrumental in identifying autism as a mental disorder of many gradations, affecting people across the spectrum of intelligence — and who gave autism in its mildest form the name Asperger syndrome — died June 6 in Kent, England. She was 85.
Her death, from complications of Alzheimer’s disease, was announced by the National Autistic Society, an advocacy and service organization she helped found in Britain in 1962, in part to fill a void she and her husband encountered while seeking help for their own autistic daughter.
Dr. Wing helped redraw the map of a behavioral terrain that was virtually unheard of until the mid-20th century and that now, partly as a result of her insights, is said to affect the lives of roughly one of every 70 people in the world. She is widely credited with recognizing autism as a spectrum of related problems, rather than as a single condition.
She is best-known for rediscovering the work of Hans Asperger, an Austrian psychiatrist who first described a form of autism in a group of intelligent, verbally adroit boys who were indifferent to their schoolwork but intensely interested in one or two subjects, such as trains, dinosaurs or royal genealogy. The “little professors,” as he called them, shared many of the usual problems common to autism: inability to make friends, repetitive behaviors, distress at any break in routine.
Asperger’s paper challenged the commonly held belief of the day that all autistic children were cognitively disabled or schizophrenic. But his findings, published in Switzerland in 1944, went almost completely unnoticed during World War II.
Decades later, his paper had still not been translated from German to English when Dr. Wing obtained a copy. With a translator’s help, she described its findings in a paper of her own, “Asperger’s Syndrome: A Clinical Account,” published in 1981. (She relabeled the disorder with Asperger’s name, she said, because the term he originally used, “autistic psychopathy,” might suggest violent behavior.) Until the publication of Dr. Wing’s paper, said Scott Badesch, president of the Autism Society, a U.S. organization, “no one had heard of Asperger’s except Asperger.”
Besides reclaiming an important body of scientific research, Dr. Wing’s paper entered Asperger syndrome as strong evidence for the larger argument she made in her paper: that autism should be understood as a spectrum of disorders — some dramatically different from one another — sharing common roots.
Asperger patients, some of whom would go on to successful careers and relatively untroubled lives, represented one end of this spectrum, she said. At the other end, she suggested, may be patients like those studied by Dr. Leo Kanner, a U.S. psychiatrist, who first described what he called “infantile autism” in 1943 in mute children prone to extreme withdrawal, obsessively repeated behaviors and temper tantrums.
Between the two poles was a large population of people struggling with undiagnosed forms of the disorder at the core of autism. Dr. Wing described that disorder as “a lack of ability to understand and use the rules governing social behavior.”
Her paper was not immediately recognized for its seminal insight, said Judith Gould, a British psychologist who collaborated with Dr. Wing in formulating the spectrum idea. “But it has become the scientific consensus,” she added in a phone interview, noting that since 2013, autism has been officially referred to as “autism spectrum disorder” by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the manual used by doctors, therapists and government health officials in the United States for classifying mental-health problems.
Gould was Dr. Wing’s partner in 1991 in establishing the Center for Social and Communication Disorders, a London clinic that has become a model for diagnosing autism and treating children. It is now known as the Lorna Wing Center for Autism.
Dr. Wing was born Lorna Gladys Tolchard on Oct. 7, 1928, in Gillingham, Kent, to Bernard and Gladys Tolchard. Her father was an engineer in the Royal Navy. After her undergraduate studies, she received her medical training at University College Hospital in London, where she met John Wing, a fellow student in anatomy class. They were assigned to the same cadaver in the dissection laboratory, she told interviewers. They later married, and both went on to become psychiatrists.
She entered the field of autism research in the 1950s the way most people did in that era — from urgent, personal necessity. Her daughter, Susie, born in 1956, was delayed in developing various skills and had a detached, insular manner that led her parents to a succession of doctors in search of a diagnosis.
“We learned nothing about autism during our medical training,” Lorna Wing told an interviewer. “It might have been mentioned once in a lecture, but as for facts or prevalence, no one knew anything.”
Susie was finally given a diagnosis of autism at age 3 — well past what would be the norm today — and by then beyond the reach of early interventions that might have helped her, Dr. Wing said in an academic-panel discussion in 2011. She described raising her daughter as a labor-intensive and at times thrilling process — “triumphant moments when the penny drops,” as she once put it — of making the world less frightening and then, “little by little, trying to expand that world.”
Convinced of the need for more research, Dr. Wing changed her specialty from adult to children’s psychiatry in 1959. She and Gould conducted some of the earliest epidemiological research on the incidence of autism.
Dr. Wing is survived by a sister, Valerie Tolchard. Susie Wing died in 2005 at 49, and John Wing died in 2010.
In some of her last interviews, Lorna Wing said she had come to believe that most people have some autistic traits. “I do believe you need autistic traits for real success in science and the arts, and I am fascinated by the behaviors and personalities of musicians and scientists,” she told The Guardian.
“One of my favorite sayings is that nature never draws a line without smudging it. You cannot separate into those ‘with’ and ‘without’ traits. They are so scattered.”