Anthony Hopkins and the suffering caused by unrecognized Asperger’s condition

Published on July 30, 2017

The history of the term Asperger's Syndrome is rather complicated. The condition now popularly recognized as autism was first proposed by Leo Kanner in 1943. A year later, an Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger described a somewhat similar condition which came to be called Asperger’s Syndrome. However, Hans was in wartime Germany and the condition bearing his name only became popularized in the early 80s mainly due to the publication of a paper by Lorna Wing (1981).

It was not until 1994 that "Asperger’s Disorder" was included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 4th edition which was one of the most popular diagnostic reference sources used by mental health professionals in the U.S. It is only in the past 20-30 years that the diagnosis of Asperger’s condition has been popularly recognized. Consequently, there are currently many adults with the condition who have never been diagnosed either during childhood or as adults. Many have had, and continue to have difficulties in coping with effects of Asperger's on their daily lives.

The main purpose of this article is to illustrate the suffering of unrecognized Asperger’s condition by sharing the life of Sir Anthony Hopkins, who has achieved worldwide acclaim and fame for his lifelong acting career. However, not many are aware that his childhood and adult life was fraught with difficulties caused by Asperger’s condition. We will begin with a brief description of how Asperger’s condition manifests itself in adults.

What are some characteristics of Asperger’s condition in adults?

Some of the most widely used criteria for identifying Asperger’s condition are listed below (Gillberg, 1989), (DSM-IV, DSM-V), American Psychiatric Association. 

  • The adult with Asperger’s condition may sometimes be baffled by complex social situations because of difficulty in perceiving subtle social cues and in knowing when to engage and how to. Cocktail parties are a special torture. There may be difficulty in picking up complex verbal meanings. Verbal communications are sometimes taken too literally. There may also be difficulty in perceiving nonverbal cues such as facial expressions and body postures which are so important in social interactions.
  • Perhaps because of these deficits in social communication, the person with Asperger's condition may fail to develop the usual number of close friendships with peers. 
  • Another consequence of the social communication difficulties is that they may be perceived as cold and not reciprocating emotionally.
  • There may be a restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped pattern of behavior, interests, and activities. However, most adults with Asperger’s try to compensate by developing “Cocktail party topics”.
  • Unusually strong need for routine and consistency and be frustrated by unexpected changes even in seemingly unimportant things. This may have been true for Apple’s deceased CEO Steve Jobs.
  • Sensory problems such as unusual tactual sensitivities e.g. to rough clothing that make it unbearable to wear. 
  • Subtle motor problems such as awkwardness, or idiosyncrasies in the way the person with Asperger’s condition speaks.

After reading the above list, if you identify with the symtoms but have never been professionally diagnosed, you could be a member of what some have called "The Lost Generation" (Baron-Cohen , 2008: Lai 2014). I suggest you read the very well written book "Very Late Diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome" (2014). It may help convince you of the benefits of finding out if you have the condition even after 50 years of age. Anthony Hopkins was in his 70’s when he was diagnosed.

I am using the terms "Asperger's condition" mostly as opposed to Asperger's syndrome or disorder deliberately because I am one of the growing number of people who want to minimize the use of such psychiatric terms which imply dysfunctionality. As Hans Asperger wrote “Not everything that steps out of line, and thus abnormal, must necessarily be inferior”.

The life of Sir Anthony Hopkins

Fortunately, someone has come out about having Asperger’s condition recently and that is Sir Anthony Hopkins. Being 80 this year, he is uniquely qualified to share what it was like to grow up living a life with no idea of what was causing him distress. To illustrate briefly his life story, I will use his own public statements based on a Wikipedia biography and three separate interviews: Franz Lidz in 2002, Bruce Fessier in January of 2017 and Louise Gannon in June of 2017. 


Anthony Hopkins was born in 1937 in Port Talbot, a grim South Wales steel town. His school days were unproductive; he would rather immerse himself in art, such as painting and drawing, or playing the piano, than attend to his studies.

Franz Lidz quoted in her interview with Hopkins: "I was a poor learner, which left me open to ridicule and gave me an inferiority complex. I grew up absolutely convinced I was stupid." At boarding school, the headmaster told him he was "hopeless" and he developed a "sheer contempt for authority."

Fessier received similar quotes in his interview: “I was fairly stupid in school. Maybe I had dyslexia. I couldn't understand what everybody was talking about. I was an unruly little kid. I didn't know what I was doing most of the time. They put me in the boarding school because they didn’t know what else to do with me. So, my school history was poor and I think that breeds in any child a lot of anger and loneliness.”

Fessier: Did you like to paint and draw as a kid? Was that a passion?

Anthony Hopkins: "No. I drew a little like any kid does in colouring books. I tried to play piano. I practiced, but I was never a natural talent. I started composing at an early age and I started writing poetry. Michael Seal of the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra performed one of my pieces. It was a big concert."

The Alcohol Addiction

A self-described ''antisocial moron,'' Mr. Hopkins was prone to churlishness and boozing.

These days Hopkins rarely talks about his boozing past, the two failed marriages (to the actress Petronella Barker and production assistant Jennifer Lynton) and daughter (Abigail, now 48, who he only sporadically sees).

He has been sober since December 29, 1975, the day he woke up in Arizona with no idea of how he had arrived in the desert city. On that day, he attended his first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. “It was all that mad energy. … I had an energy that ripped me apart and the booze was my way of dealing with that, but when you have all that energy you can just keep going; you don’t know when to stop.”, said Hopkins.

Having maintained continuous sobriety for over 40 years, he is also a wonderful example of the power of a 12 step program to help people with alcohol addiction. It is likely that the biggest contributor to the development of an addiction in a person with Asperger’s is the same as that in almost all addicts i.e. an attempt to escape the stressors in their life.

His Behaviors Characteristic Of Asperger’s Condition

“Well, I’ve been diagnosed with Asperger’s, but I’m high end. A lot of people with Asperger's are highly functional, but inconsistent. They have nervous ticks, nervous habits, inconsistently obsessive thinking.”

Fessier then asked: Did you realize early that your brain just worked in a way that was more conducive to acting and art than perhaps business?

Hopkins replied: "Yes, I think so. I didn't know Asperger's even existed. But, I became an actor with a rather worker's approach to it. My father was a baker. But, I was never sure what the hell I was. That led to years of deep insecurity and curiosity. I could never settle anywhere. I was troubled and caused trouble, especially in my early years. I matured a bit, so I’m at much more peace with myself."

Lousie Gannon wrote in his article: He is, he says himself, "very much a loner. … I don't go to parties, I don't have many friends …"

Gannon then asked Hopkins whether he thinks Asperger’s has helped him as an actor. He nods his head. "I definitely look at people differently. I like to deconstruct, to pull a character apart, to work out what makes them tick and my view will not be the same as everyone else."

Renowned for his ability to remember lines, Hopkins keeps his memory supple by learning things by heart such as poetry, and Shakespeare. In Steven Spielberg's Amistad, Hopkins astounded the crew with his memorisation of a seven-page courtroom speech, delivering it in one go.

Hopkins is a gifted mimic, adept at turning his native Welsh accent into whatever is required by a character. He duplicated the voice of his late mentor, Laurence Olivier, for additional scenes in Spartacus in its 1991 restoration. (Wikipedia)

Recent Years (Post Asperger’s Identification)

Asked about his latest movie, Transformers – The Last Knight, he replies: "All I know is I play a highly educated, eccentric English lord. I had a terrific time making it. (one of the most frequent characteristics of persons with Asperger’s condition is their “eccentricity” or less kindly “oddness’.

When asked by Gannon about retirement, he said: "Retire? If I stopped working I would die."

On whether he had any regrets, Hopkins replies: "I have made many, many mistakes in my life, but do I regret any of them? No. I don't regret the anger, I don't regret the drinking. Life can be painful, it's painful for everyone and that's the deal. My motto is get over it, get over yourself, do the best you can do for as long as you can."

Importance of early identification of Asperger’s condition

Although one senses Hopkins' tremendous perseverance, resilience, ego strength and creative spirit in the above quotations, they also point to how painful it can be to go through life having Asperger’s condition but not knowing it and hence not receiving any help for it. Without identification and support the individual with Asperger’s condition is likely to experience extremely low self-esteem, a damaged self-concept, feelings of not really being a member of the human race etc. 

Hence, they are likely to live a life of unfulfilled promise and due to their high intelligence, they will be acutely aware of their shortcomings. Even, with significant success, the psychological distress of coping with these problems, likely contributed to Hopkin's alcohol problem. 

A second reason for early identification arises from fact that there is recent evidence that, of the various conditions constituting the “Autism Spectrum Disorder”, Asperger’s condition is the fastest growing subtype (Wingate et al, 2014). It is therefore becoming increasingly more important to identify this condition as early as possible to prevent a lot of unnecessary emotional pain.

Fortunately, there are now many resources available for the adult receiving the identification of Asperger’s condition very late in life as was the case for Sir Anthony Hopkins. Some of these resources for persons with Asperger’s condition are listed below:

The Autism Research Centre (ARC), at the University of Cambridge provides probably the world’s best website for autism in general and in particular adults with Asperger’s condition. It receives a five star recommendation from me.

National Autistic Society (of UK). I highly recommend this cite because of its large amount of useful, up to date, and extensive range of information.


American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth  Edition (DSM-IV). American Psychiatric Association, Washington, DC.

Baron-Cohen, S., Robinson, J., Woodbury-Smith, M., & Wheelwright, S. (2007). Very Late Diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome: The Cambridge Lifespan Asperger Syndrome Service (CLASS). Interactive Autism Network. http://www. iancommunity. org/cs/articles/very_late_diagnosis_of_asperger_syndrome.

Butwicka, A., Långström, N., Larsson, H., Lundström, S., Serlachius, E., Almqvist, C., ... & Lichtenstein, P. (2017). Increased risk for substance use-related problems in autism spectrum disorders: a population-based cohort study. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 47(1), 80.

Ferrier, 2017. Desert Sun


Gannon, 2017 Daily Mail


Gillberg, I. C., & Gillberg, C. (1989). Asperger Syndrome: Some epidemiological considerations. A research note. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 30, 631–638.

Lai, M. C., & Baron-Cohen, S. (2015). Identifying the lost generation of adults with autism spectrum conditions. The Lancet Psychiatry, 2(11), 1013-1027.

Lidz, 2002 NYT interview

Wing, L. (1981). Asperger's syndrome: a clinical account. Psychological medicine, 11(1), 115-129.

Wylie, P. (2014). Very late diagnosis of Asperger syndrome (autism spectrum disorder): How seeking a diagnosis in adulthood can change your life. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Scott Psychological Centre provides assessment, identification and psychoeducation for adults with Asperger’s condition. There are also monthly meetings of support groups for adult with Asperger’s condition which currently are restricted to current clients. To find out more about the groups, feel free to drop us an email at

Category(s):Asperger's Syndrome

Written by:

Brian Scott

Dr. Scott is a clinical psychologist based in Singapore with three decades of counseling and psychotherapy experience in helping adults with many kinds of psychological difficulties. These include anxiety, depression, addictions (cybersex, love), and Adult Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (Adult ADHD).

Brian Scott belongs to Scott Psychological Centre in Singapore