The Case for Neurodiversity

Often described as high-functioning autism, Asperger syndrome differs qualitatively from conventional autism in some major ways. While both autism and Asperger’s were classified as pervasive developmental disorders by the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-IV, individuals with Asperger’s are distinguished more by what they can do than what they can’t. The DSM-IV (fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) defines pervasive developmental disorders by their hallmark characteristics: “severe and pervasive impairment in several areas of development: reciprocal social interaction skills, communication skills, or the presence of stereotyped behavior, interests, and activities.” While tending to exhibit these symptoms, Asperger’s is particularly defined by the lack of “clinically significant delays in language. . . . there are no clinically significant delays in cognitive development or in the development of age-appropriate self-help skills, adaptive behavior (other than in social interaction), and curiosity about the environment in childhood” [1]. To put it in plain language, people with Asperger’s never develop the ability to socialize with others, but unlike those with general autism, they excel in areas like language and cognition. They are also easily spotted by an intense, obsessive interest in particular subjects or patterns, such as almanac statistics or bus routes, and a tendency to speak in the style of a university textbook.

Did you finish the last paragraph thinking, “What’s wrong with memorizing bus routes?” or “Hey! I have friends like that!” Indeed, the line separating aberrant from normal behavior is a murky one which varies greatly across time and culture. Where do we as a society draw the line between personality types which, despite being unusual, are just part of human variation, and personality types which are so deleterious they require modification? The DSM clearly defines Asperger’s as a disease, a state of being which warrants society’s intervention. But many Aspies (a colloquial name for people with Asperger’s), especially younger ones, increasingly of understand their “condition” as just another variation in human diversity and should be regarded as such [2]. You’ve heard of racial, gender and age diversity, maybe even size and weight diversity, but have you heard of neurodiversity? It’s a buzzword that summarizes a growing movement to change the recognition of various uncommon personality descriptions from “disorder” to variety. Those not diagnosed with any recognized condition are referred to as the neurotypical, or NT [3].

Whether it is intentional or not, some striking parallels are emerging between the neurodiversity movement and the much older, more experienced gay rights movement. Like Asperger’s Syndrome, homosexuality was once classified as a mental disorder in the DSM. Changing attitudes combined with public pressure and activism convinced the American Psychiatric Association to remove it from the manual in 1973, a symbolic acknowledgement that homosexuality would now be regarded as one variety of normal human behavior [4]. Today, Aspies are hoping for the same kind of transition. A slew of activist and support websites, such as aspiesforfreedom.com, have sprung up. One can even find merchandise online, such as t-shirts bearing slogans like “Aspie Pride” and “Aspies are cool.” Forums exist where Aspies can discuss such topics as interests and dating—recall that the act of discussion itself is a skill those with Asperger’s are alleged to lack [5].

Are people diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome going too far with their assertion? Does their argument lead us down a slippery slope towards the acceptance and normalization of other conditions, such as schizophrenia? Would acquiescence to the neurodiversity movement legitimize organizations like NAMBLA and their advocacy of pedophilia? The problem with this criticism is that it ignores the crucial difference distinguishing Asperger’s from truly harmful states of being: Asperger’s works. Individuals with Asperger’s are noted for their high intelligence and can often manage to secure high paying occupations. Various theories have circulated concerning the possible evolutionary origins of Asperger’s, but few of them extrapolate that evolutionary process forward. Darwinian natural selection weeds out agents unable to survive or reproduce in their environment, but in this post-millennial technological environment, many Aspies are thriving [6]. Like many introverted or socially awkward people, Aspies find it much easier to communicate with other human beings online. They are making friends and even finding love on the internet, all of which are abilities supposed to be lacking for a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome. But these diagnostic criteria were developed in a time before blogs and web forums. Aspies today are not only well suited to the cyber-world, they may excel at it to a greater degree than the neurotypical, and the IT sector has become increasingly dependent on the services of people with minds like an Aspie [7].

The neurodiversity movement is in its infancy. It is not without its critics, including not only much of the psychological establishment, but also many Aspies and their families as well. The 20th century was defined by an ever widening acceptance of people who had previously been outside the mainstream. This present movement will be extremely interesting to watch unfold during this century, when those with unusual minds will find it ever easier to live in a world that is increasingly virtual.

References

  1. American Psychiatric Association. “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: Fourth Edition.” Psychiatry Online. www.psychiatryonline.com/DSMPDF/dsm-iv.pdf (accessed February 20, 2010).
  2. HARMON, AMY. “The New York Times > Health > How About Not ‘Curing’ Us, Some Autistics Are Pleading.” The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2004/12/20/health/20autism.html?_r=3&ei=5094&en=94b0bbab7b406012&hp=&ex=1103605200&adxnnl=1&partner=homepage&adxnnlx=1103554149-4bRDBe1qXoG7brZIocQQUQ&pagewanted=all&position= (accessed February 21, 2010).
  3. Seidel, Kathleen. “neurodiversity.com : Honoring the Variety of Human Wiring.” neurodiversity.com : Honoring the Variety of Human Wiring. http://neurodiversity.com (accessed February 20, 2010).
  4. Spitzer, RL. ” The Diagnostic Status of Homosexuality in DSM-III: A Reformulation of the Issues — Spitzer 138 (2): 210 — Am J Psychiatry.” The American Journal of Psychiatry. http://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/cgi/content/abstract/138/2/210 (accessed February 21, 2010).
  5. “Aspies For Freedom.” Aspies For Freedom. http://aspiesforfreedom.com (accessed February 20, 2010).
  6. Rockets, Rusty. “News Extra – Autism, Asperger’s and Evolution.” Science News, Research And Discussion. http://www.scienceagogo.com/news/autism_evolution.shtml (accessed February 20, 2010).
  7. “Wrong Planet – Autism Community.” Wrong Planet – Autism Community. http://wrongplanet.net (accessed February 20, 2010).

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  • Thanks for writing this. You elegantly sum up many of the major issues surrounding neurodiversity. You might be interested in a book I have coming out in May called Neurodiversity: Discovering the Extraordinary Gifts of Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia and Other Brain Differences (DaCapo Lifelong/Perseus). In addition to these three “disorders” I also look at the strengths related to mood disorders, anxiety disorders, intellectual disabilities, and schizophrenia. I hope that, like your article, it will stimulate conversation and even controversy about this important issue. Again, thanks for writing this compelling “case for neurodiversity.”

  • Thank you for your comment Dr. Armstrong!