Asperger's Diagnoses May Redefine What Is Normal

May 23, 2009 08:00 AM
by Sarah Amandolare
Instead of looking for cures for those with autism spectrum disorders, some think society should value their special gifts.

Can We Learn Acceptance?

Although more adults have been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome in recent years, some experts, as well as those who have the autism spectrum disorder, contend that a cure is not necessary. Rather, acceptance of different personality traits is in order, they claim.

An essay in The New York Times "Modern Love" column illustrates the coming of age, so to speak, of an adult with Asperger's syndrome. In his essay, David Finch discussed his struggle to learn how to empathize, and explored his wife's ability to approach his behavioral differences with patience and acceptance.

"With diligent practice," Finch wrote, empathy "can evolve from a contrived acknowledgment of other people's feelings to the real thing."

But if Finch and others with Asperger's syndrome are trying so hard to relate to people without it, why aren't people without Asperger's encouraged to take similar steps?

Deborah Barnbaum tackles the issue in her book, "The Ethics of Autism," in which she relays her discomfort with "putting people with autism 'outside the moral community,'" according to The Lancet. Establishing people with Asperger's as outsiders compromises the "moral standing" of those in the proverbial establishment, Barnbaum suggests.

Barnbaum also takes cues from Temple Grandin, a woman diagnosed with high-functioning autism who does not wish to be "cured." In "The Ethics of Autism," Grandin explains that autism is simply a part of who she is, and that her unique ability to think "in pictures" is something she wants to keep. "I would never want to become so normal that I would lose those skills," Grandin is quoted as saying in The Lancet.

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Opinion & Analysis: Evaluating what is "normal"

A 2008 article in the Chicago Tribune presented a similar argument from Alexander Plank, a college student diagnosed with Asperger's who is an outspoken opponent of curing autism. Plank does not think of autism as a "disease" that should be recovered from. Instead, he suggests that parents of autistic children should "love them for who they are," according to Tribune health reporter Julie Deardorff.

"Many brilliant people have autism and when you talk about wiping it off the map, it's damaging to people who feel it's part of their identity," Plank told Deardorff.

In an article for Newsweek published in September 2007, Lorraine Ali dissected the fine line between kids being "quirky" and having a disorder. "The terms 'normal' and 'abnormal' are subjective," she writes. Therefore, when parents become concerned about their children's behavior, it is important to ask why: "[I]s it because they deviate from our own expectations" or because the child seems to be struggling?

Ali also spoke with Mary-Dean Barringer, who represents the nonprofit school All Kinds of Minds. Barringer takes issue with labeling kids with Asperger's syndrome. "[W]hy not call it a highly specialized mind phenomenon rather than a disorder?" she suggests. "That label alone shapes public perception about uniqueness and quirkiness."

Background: Adults with autism and Asperger's

Children with autism are frequently in the media, but adults with the disorder have become increasingly vocal. Some have written books and essays that offer a window into their unusual lives.

According to The Vancouver Sun, "few therapists are available to treat the illnesses in adults just as more are seeking help." Asperger's can be hard to diagnose in adults, and is sometimes misdiagnosed as depression or social anxiety. Dr. Deborah Elliott of Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., told The Sun that people with Asperger's can become depressed because they can't "develop relationships."

Typically, adults with Asperger's syndrome display "normal or above normal intelligence" but struggle socially, avoiding eye contact and failing to recognize "normal social cues," The Sun reported.

Reference: Autism guide with Asperger's resources


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