Autism: Difference or Disorder?
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.