Diagnosing Asperger’s

You may have heard that they are going to change the diagnostic criteria for autism and Asperger’s.  As a parent of a child who clearly has autism and another child who is clearly socially awkward– yet just as clearly does not have Asperger’s– this seems good to me.   Both Autism and Asperger’s are very real problems and the people with these conditions deserve all the help and support we can offer.  What I don’t think does any good is labeling every kid who has trouble making friends or who can be awkward in social situations to be on the Autism spectrum– it’s much more complicated than that.  Thus, I really enjoyed this essay in the Times by a man who was formerly diagnosed with Asperger’s, but no more:

I exhibited a “qualified impairment in social interaction,” specifically “failure to develop peer relationships appropriate to developmental level” (I had few friends) and a “lack of spontaneous seeking to share enjoyment, interests, or achievements with other people” (I spent a lot of time by myself in my room reading novels and listening to music, and when I did hang out with other kids I often tried to speak like an E. M. Forster narrator, annoying them). I exhibited an “encompassing preoccupation with one or more stereotyped and restricted patterns of interest that is abnormal either in intensity or focus” (I memorized poems and spent a lot of time playing the guitar and writing terrible poems and novels).

The general idea with a psychological diagnosis is that it applies when the tendencies involved inhibit a person’s ability to experience a happy, normal life. And in my case, the tendencies seemed to do just that. My high school G.P.A. would have been higher if I had been less intensely focused on books and music. If I had been well-rounded enough to attain basic competence at a few sports, I wouldn’t have provoked rage and contempt in other kids during gym and recess…

The biggest single problem with the diagnostic criteria applied to me is this: You can be highly perceptive with regard to social interaction, as a child or adolescent, and still be a spectacular social failure. This is particularly true if you’re bad at sports or nervous or weird-looking.

Asperger’s is a real problem, but I don’t think it helps anybody to try and label every socially awkward kid as having it.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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