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Could Syndrome Be Source of Folk Tales?

August 26, 1994|GEOFF BOUCHER

As scientists grapple with the mysteries of Williams syndrome, UC Irvine professor Howard Lenhoff can't help but wonder if past generations turned to folklore to explain the presence of people among them with the distinctive traits that accompany the birth disorder.

"It seems logical to me, and to others, that the legends we hear about music-loving, kindhearted fairies and elves might be the way people used to talk about Williams," the biologist said.

"There are plenty of examples in history of people creating superstition or fantastic stories to explain medical conditions they couldn't understand, so it doesn't seem too unlikely."

Lenhoff has drafted an article, which he hopes to have published in a scientific journal, citing literary and historical references that could be related to Williams syndrome. Among his findings and theories:

* The facial traits of people with Williams syndrome is most often described as "pixie-like," with small, upturned noses; almond-shaped eyes; oval ears, and broad mouths with full lips accented by a small chin.

The syndrome is also accompanied by slow growth and development, giving people with WS a small stature. "It seems clear that they mirror the classic description of pixies and elves, and may be where (that description) originated from," Lenhoff said.

* Fairies, elves and leprechauns are, according to lore, kindhearted but sensitive beings. That fits the description of people with Williams, who are noted for their effusive personalities and insatiable love of conversation and interaction.

"Fairies were said to become mischievous when ridiculed, and that fits with Williams, too, because childlike sensitivity to criticism and being mocked lasts throughout adulthood for many (people with Williams)."

* The "wee, magical people" of assorted folklore sources always seem to be associated with music and storytelling, Lenhoff points out. That trait fits nicely into the description of people with Williams, who have a strong command of vocabulary, surprisingly vivid narrative skills and, in many cases, musical ability.

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