Autism: Difference or Disorder?

by Nomi

Hi everyone,

Nomi here, grappling with my latest philosophical dilemma.  It’s actually a long-standing one: Is autism a “disorder?”  Many with Asperger’s vehemently protest the pathologizing of all forms of autism.  I certainly would not jump to call my Asperger’s a disease.  At the same time, however, I think I would be hard-pressed to convince the family members of a severely autistic person that such helplessness, impaired communication, and even self-destruction are simply “a different way of being.”

The way I currently view it, then, is that autism is something that is useful in small amounts but destructive in excess.  A person with some characteristics of autism may be loyal, honest, trustworthy, hard-working, focused and thorough.  However, give the same person “too much” autism, and he or she becomes so severely impaired as to render these positive features unhelpful.  It is the impairment-to-benefit ratio, I think, that determines whether autism is a gift, a difference, or a disorder.

Autism is not alone in this respect.  Indeed, many mental illnesses (though I recognize that autism is not a mental illness!) also confer definite advantages in small doses.  For instance, small amounts of depression are associated with increased focus and introspection; small amounts of mania are associated with creativity and originality; small amounts of anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder are associated with consciensciousness and organization.  All these traits are unequivocally helpful!  But it is unfortunate that they so often correlate with painful psychological states, and that they may all but disappear when the state (such as depression) becomes too severe.  Such is the case with autism.

This is just my opinion, by the way.  Certainly, I am not the first to have thought about the mind in this way.  But the idea just sort of clicked with me recently.  It is a controversial idea.  Fundamentally, I think, it is hard for people to accept that conditions that can cause so much suffering are so tightly linked with positive traits.  But that is how nature functions.  We must take the bad with the good.  And, if we look closer, we may also see the good that lies within each bad.

Let’s stop pathologizing everything, people.  If we insist on “treating” all mental diversity, society’s progress will fall flat.

August 3, 2010       Posted in: AS Community & Culture
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3 Responses

  1. Abram Abram - August 13, 2010

    Yeah, let’s stop pathologizing everything. Like hookworms. Nasty little parasites you get from walking barefoot through open latrines; they burrow up through your feet to live in your intestinal tract. But turns out they cure asthma, allergies, and most other autoimmune disorders. Of course the FDA hasn’t approved it yet, but there’s this guy who cured his own asthma (via aforementioned barefoot walking) and now harvests worms from his own stool to sell online. Heard it on RadioLab. So, like, maybe Asperger’s is sort of the hookworms of neurological development.

  2. Nomi Nomi Kaim - August 13, 2010

    “Maybe Asperger’s is sort of the hookworms of neurological development.”

    Okay, that makes absolutely no sense to me.

    Anyway, I heard that on RadioLab too, and, you know, the guy never talked about how he managed to keep the hookworm population in his gut from multiplying too much. Because too many hookworms (though they may cure allergies) are just bad news. And those fellows are good at multiplying pretty darn fast. You know, we do need to be careful, while not over-pathologizing, not to under-pathologize, either, because sometimes people on the radio are geniuses and sometimes they are kooks (sometimes both), and plenty of things have been done in the name of medical science that were very, very dangerous. Not that we don’t sometimes need to do outrageously dangerous things in order to make new discoveries, advance our civilization, etc., etc. I’m just saying, easy on the hookworms.

    By the way, I don’t particularly identify with hookworms myself, although presumably some Aspies might (you never know). And I have had some persistent allergies of late, but nothing bad enough to call for drastic measures. :)

  3. Abram Abram - August 14, 2010

    OK, it was supposed to be kind of a random, totally absurd analogy, but now that you’ve challenged it’s validity, I have no choice but to defend it. So, like, at first glance most people might say all forms of autism are pathologies. Just as they might view all types of little worms that live in your poo. But on closer examination, some little worms are really beneficial (although they still live in poo and are still technically parasites). And some types of autism, like the variations of Asperger’s that leads to Nobel prizes, is also beneficial (although these Aspies are still disorganized and lacking in most social graces). So there.

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