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.