Saturday, February 4, 2012

Miraculous recoveries from Asperger's Syndrome

For a brief, heady period in the history of autism spectrum diagnosis, in the late ’90s, I had Asperger syndrome.
Thus opens Benjamin Nugent's Op-Ed piece in yesterday's New York Times.  So certain was his psychologist/Asperger's specialist mother that Nugent had Asperger's Syndrome that she featured him at the age of 20 in an educational video. "It presents me as a young man living a full, meaningful life, despite his mental abnormality," Nugent notes.

At the time, Nugent did indeed meet the diagnostic criteria for autism:
I exhibited a “qualified impairment in social interaction,” specifically “failure to develop peer relationships appropriate to developmental level” (I had few friends) and a “lack of spontaneous seeking to share enjoyment, interests, or achievements with other people” (I spent a lot of time by myself in my room reading novels and listening to music, and when I did hang out with other kids I often tried to speak like an E. M. Forster narrator, annoying them). I exhibited an “encompassing preoccupation with one or more stereotyped and restricted patterns of interest that is abnormal either in intensity or focus” (I memorized poems and spent a lot of time playing the guitar and writing terrible poems and novels).
But all it took was to "ditch the Forsterian narrator thing," move to a big city, and meet people who shared his obsession, and, lo and behold, no longer did Nugent meet the criteria. Given that these describe Asperger's as “a continuous and lifelong disorder,” Nugent's recovery was nothing short of miraculous.

Possibly, as Nugent suggests, these soon-to-be revised criteria for autism are flawed:
You can be highly perceptive with regard to social interaction, as a child or adolescent, and still be a spectacular social failure. This is particularly true if you’re bad at sports or nervous or weird-looking.
It's interesting how the "heady period" of Asperger's diagnoses has coincided with certain trends in education. I'm thinking, of course, of those classroom environments and expectations that marginalize and pathologize awkward, nervous, or weird-looking children. Combine today's heightened expectations for social interaction (group work, cooperative learning, participation in class disucssions, sharing personal feelings) with the inherent subjectivity of the official criteria ("impairment in social interaction"; lack of peer relations "appropriate to developmental level") and we have yet another reason for the autistic spectrum epidemic.

Back when schools let kids work mostly on their own and viewed independent learning, intense academic interests, encyclopedic knowledge, and strong computation skills as good things, how many of today's Aspies would have ever been deemed "impaired"? However ostracized they might always have been on the playground, how many of them would have found respect for their academic skills, at least from their teachers, in the classroom? How differently might they have felt about themselves; how different might the whole psychological feedback loop have been between them and the adults they interact with?

Were schools to lower their social demands and raise their appreciation of academic skills, perhaps some of today's Aspies would, just like Nugent in New York, undergo spontaneous recoveries from their "lifelong" disabilities.


1crosbycat said...

I think you are on to something - it is the new nature of schools that causes Asperger's to be a "disability" in the school setting, rather than an academic advantage (for at least some of these kids). The group work/ class participation aspects are bad enough, but one trend that really bothers me it that schools deliberately mix up the kids classes from year to year to discourage close friendships in favor of many acquaintances. My kids never got inot classes with their friends from one year to the next. But every year the form for parent input for next year class placement says that friend requests will not be honored (so why have the form?), but I didn't really think about it until reading an article (maybe from this blog?). Just another way to disadvantage the socially awkward child. htp://

We took our kid out of public school in favor of a very small traditional school and a lot of his symptoms are fading (the worst ones like aggression and yelling - he is still buggy on his ever expanding obsessive interests). So is the "cure" for Asp. leaving public school? Could save the government a lot of money...

Anonymous said...

I don't disagree with the idea that school practices handicap some kids to the point that they are now diagnosed as ASD, but many other kids (is neurotypical the preferred term?) also hated the ASD-unfriendly practices. My kids were all elite athletes, all attractive, socially adept and reasonably-to-very outgoing - but they preferred to work on their own.

Anonymous said...

I should add that they all HATED the personal narrative, sharing of feelings, journaling etc.; they felt it was intrusive and inappropriate. They felt that groupwork was a large waste of time - and,often, a way to give less capable/motivated kids good grades.

FedUpMom said...

Katharine, on the subject of personal reflections, check out this blog post from a middle school teacher:

Tell Me A Story

here's the final straw:

Middle school students don't like opening up and exploring who they really are, so I particularly love to watch them squirm through this one.

Katharine Beals said...

Thanks for sharing this, FedUpMom. It's outrageous! And blogworthy. Enjoyed reading your comments there.

Deirdre Mundy said...

He's definitely onto something. I went to the U of C--the joke was that you could tell a U of C extrovert because he looked at the OTHER person's shoes when he talked.

I've often commented that about 75% of my college friends could probably get an 'autism spectrum' diagnosis if they tried. And many were socially awkward rejects in High School and had fulfilling social lives in college because they could find friends with similar interests and similar levels of social skills.

Is something really a disability when the answer is "go to a top tier school and find friends in your major??"

LEX said...

Schools pathologizing a point on the human bell curve? Certainly not! Schools contributing to a perceived problem until it becomes diagnosable? It can't be! Seriously, this same tale could be told about dyslexia or ADHD just as readily. One repercussion of insisting that all children become readers and writers at the age of 5 or 6 is that some of them will come up short. Couple this with classrooms where teachers know lots about children's literature but little to nothing about the writing system, and a whole lot of kids get left in the dust. Hmm. There simply *must* be something wrong with them.

Hainish said...

FedUpMom, that English teacher is despicable. Schools should not have the right to require students to divulge details of their personal lives. I hope someone, somewhere, sues.

Mrsh said...

Being very smart in today's schools IS not if far more important to be popular and lose your REAL identity by "melting in" with other people your age. Individuality is dead...I shudder to think that the great scientists, composers, artists, inventors,mathematicians, of yesterday would have FAILED in today's school systems!

We home school our quirky left-brained 5 year old, who reads and comprehends at 6th grade level, does math equations (gasp he CARRIES and BORROWS, I can't even understand the new way they do math today lol) He is fascinated by tape measures...he is loving, kind, and HAPPY, even though he doesn't express himself in touchy-feely prose.

I wished we lived in a time when individuality were valued again...being an individual does NOT mean you are anti social, just that your individuality is respected, rather than being part of the herd.

By today's standards, both my husband and I would have been labeled Aspergers...just because we are researchers, inventors and COLLABORATE with others well.