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Old 02-12-2010, 09:17 PM
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Default Aspergers, Autism

By Roy Richard Grinker

February 9, 2010

IF you ask my daughter, Isabel, what autism means to her, she won’t say that it is a condition marked by impaired social communication and repetitive behaviors. She will say that her autism makes her a good artist, helps her to relate to animals and gives her perfect pitch.

The stigma of autism is fading fast. One reason is that we now understand that autism is a spectrum with an enormous range. Some people with autism are nonverbal with profound cognitive disabilities, while others are accomplished professionals.

Many people with milder symptoms of autism have, for the past 20 years or so, received a diagnosis of Asperger’s disorder. Some autistic adults call themselves “Aspies” to celebrate their talents and differences. And many parents have embraced the label because they have found it less stigmatizing, and so it has eased their sense of loss.

This may soon change, however. The American Psychiatric Association, with its release this week of proposed revisions to its authoritative Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, is recommending that Asperger’s be dropped. If this revision is adopted, the condition will be folded into the category of “autism spectrum disorder,” which will no longer contain any categories for distinct subtypes of autism like Asperger’s and “pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified” (a category for children with some traits of autism but not enough to warrant a diagnosis).

The change is welcome, because careful study of people with Asperger’s has demonstrated that the diagnosis is misleading and invalid, and there are clear benefits to understanding autism as one condition that runs along a spectrum.

When the American Psychiatric Association first recognized Asperger’s disorder in 1994, it was thought to be a subtype of autism. As the diagnosis became more common, it broadened the public understanding of autism as a spectrum. It helped previously undiagnosed adults to understand their years of feeling unconnected to others, but without bestowing what was considered the stigma of autism. And it helped educators justify providing services for children who, in the past, might have been unappreciated or even bullied because of their differences, but received no help from teachers.

It’s no longer a secret that people with autism can have careers and meaningful social relationships. Witness the spate of recent movies, from HBO’s “Temple Grandin,” about a woman with autism who became an animal scientist famed for her designs of humane slaughterhouses, to “Mary and Max,” an animated feature about a friendship between a 44-year-old man with Asperger’s and an 8-year-old girl.

But a culturally meaningful distinction isn’t always a scientifically valid one. Almost everyone with Asperger’s also fits the profile of the more classic autistic disorder. Indeed, in the current diagnostic manual, a child who has good language acquisition and intelligence qualifies as autistic if, in addition to having restricted interests and problems with social interactions, he has just one of the following symptoms, which are common among children with Asperger’s: difficulty conversing, an inability to engage in make-believe play or repetitive or unusual use of language. Even the best available diagnostic instruments cannot clearly distinguish between Asperger’s and autistic disorder.

People who now have a diagnosis of Asperger’s can be just as socially impaired as those with autism. So Asperger’s should not be a synonym for “high functioning.” Likewise, people with autism who are described as “low functioning,” including those without language, can have the kinds of intelligence and hidden abilities that are associated with Asperger’s — in art, music and engineering, for example — and can communicate if given assistance.

Moreover, large epidemiological studies have demonstrated that mild symptoms of autism are common in the general population. In particular, scientists have found that family members of a child with autism often exhibit isolated autistic traits. With autism, as with many medical diagnoses — like hypertension and obesity — the boundary lines are drawn as much by culture as by nature. Dividing up the workings of the mind is not as neat and orderly as categorizing species.

The proposed new diagnostic criteria, by describing severity and functioning along a single continuum, would also capture the often unpredictable changes among children with autism. When Isabel was 3, she had all the symptoms of autistic disorder, but if she walked into a doctor’s office today as a new patient — a chatty, quirky high school senior — she would more likely be given a diagnosis of Asperger’s disorder. Narrow diagnostic categories do not help us understand the way a person will develop over time.

We no longer need Asperger’s disorder to reduce stigma. And my daughter does not need the term Asperger’s to bolster her self-esteem. Just last week, she introduced herself to a new teacher in her high school health class. “My name is Isabel,” she said, “and my strength is that I have autism.”

Roy Richard Grinker, a professor of anthropology at George Washington University, is the author of “Unstrange Minds: Remapping the World of Autism.”
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Old 02-13-2010, 08:22 AM
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It was a beautiful day when one of my grand daughters looked me straight in the eye and tried to say grandma. She's as tall as me, very pretty and her computer skills make me look bad. Hopefully some day she will have a complete full life.
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