Autism is in the news. My Name is Khan was released last weekend. The movie takes on some important topics (Asperger’s, religion based profiling). The movie was very average, but any movie with SRK in it is automatically big news.
The other big news is that the American Psychiatric Association has recommended that Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) be dropped from the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). Asperger’s Syndrome will be subsumed under Autism and will disappear as a separate diagnosis altogether.
The reason for this change, from an op-ed in the New York Times:
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.
Several NYT readers have written in, most of them against such a move.
Elsewhere, a new movie about Temple Grandin, an autistic inventor and writer was released by HBO this month.
All in all, a very active month for Autism. Which is good. My son, Naren, has Asperger’s Syndrome. We welcome the light that is being shone on Autism and AS. Autism is not well understood in schools and by the general public. Since the most important deficiencies among Aspies (as they are called) are social deficits, and the incidence of Autism is the highest it has ever been, society benefits from a better understanding of Autism.
In the US today, 1 out of 150 kids get a diagnosis of Autism. That is a very high incidence of a disorder of any kind. In fact, there is some thinking that the genetic traits that are responsible for Autism are far more widespread than we think. In many people, the compulsive need to create order is actually a symptom of a muted Autism trait. Tyler Cowen an economist has a book out which is partly about the need for Autistics to impose order on a disorderly world. The question arises as to how Autism traits could be so widespread in the face of evolution and natural selection. The answer, some people suspect, is that in some ways Autistic traits can offer benefits and therefore increase evolutionary “fitness”.
Undeniably, there are many talented and famous people who, it is thought, were Autistic. Albert Einstein and Emily Dickinson, for instance. Vernon Smith, a Nobel prize winner in Economics, considers himself to be autistic. A five minute interview of Smith on CNBC is here.
That Autistic children can be talented is not something I need convincing about. My son Naren was identified very early as a GATE student (gifted program in California). In eighth grade, while he was having all his problems at school, he was still pulling straight As in his Honors courses. He writes with clarity and maturity [the link was wrong. fixed now]. And he is a talented musician. He plays the piano, the trumpet and the guitar and has composed four delightful pieces for the piano. Here’s one.
We are so proud of Naren’s achievements. But Naren also has problems. Like most autistic children, he doesn’t automatically learn the norms of social interaction. He stands out in a group of children. His interests – music, DC comics, manga – are deep and narrow. He has no interest in sports. It’s tough for him to make friends.
In middle school, Naren also started showing behavior problems. Teenage and Asperger’s didn’t mix well for him. Many things now frustrate and anger him. Last year he started having anger outbursts. The problem grew to where the school district didn’t think he could continue in mainstream education. We disagreed and are negotiating for the placement we think he deserves.
We know Naren will get better and be successful. He is of course, getting the inputs he needs – doctor, therapy, group work and a lot of love and support from his family. But most importantly, Naren himself, really wants to get better.
Till very recently, we never got a definitive diagnosis of AS from any doctor. Naren’s AS is typical in many ways, and atypical in others. But now, a clear AS diagnosis from both his doctor and neuropsychologist is actually a relief. That is the power of a category, or a label. Naren can now be told that he is an Aspie. He and we can now relate his condition to thousands of other Aspies. We are now part of the AS community. The resources – treatments, therapies, books, online support – available to AS kids are now available to Naren. As a descriptor – Autism is just too broad and fuzzy. On the other hand, Asperger’s is a single word that gets you very much in the neighbourhood of where Naren is.
Which is why we will keep calling it Asperger’s regardless of what they do with the DSM. I suspect most people with AS will too. People want to identify with a group with shared characteristics, which is why the group is formed in the first place. If those characteristics are shared weakly, the strength of the group identity weakens too.
We took Naren to see MNIK. In the first 15 minutes he said “I’m not like him at all.” But at the end of the movie he said “This was the best movie I have ever seen. It was all about me.”