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Thursday, June 9, 2011
Aspergers ... Philosophy ... Society ...

During my readings today I happened across a discussion regarding philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s thoughts on words and language. Wittgenstein made the point that most common nouns do not have a precise definition, one that would satisfy the rules of science. That’s not too surprising, as most languages and words evolved long before humankind conjured up the rules of science. According to Wittgenstein, things like chairs and tables and trees are recognized for their “chair-ness” or “tree-ness” by having a significant number of “family resemblances”. However, any one chair need not have ALL of the basic characteristics that chairs can have; it’s as if there were a menu of “chairness” features, and when an object has enough of those features (but not all of them), then it’s a chair. The next chair probably has a different set of features, but with some overlap.

And if you had a hundred different chairs, no one element on the “chairness” list would be present in every chair. But each chair would share at least a handful of characteristics with any other one. That’s just the nature of common language, that’s just how our minds work for day-to-day things. When science came along, it taught us the benefit of having strict definitions; so we can say that beryllium must have a certain number of protons in order to be beryllium (I think the number is four; beryllium is a very light metal, versus uranium with its 92 protons).

This made me think about Aspergers Syndrome. As I’ve said before, Aspergers Syndrome and I have some common ground; I’m not formally diagnosed with it, but a lot of the characteristics in the “AS grab-bag” are familiar to me. Over the past few years I have studied Aspergers and made effort to meet other people who have either been diagnosed or consider themselves “self-diagnosed”. It occurred to me that unlike most physical diseases where a specific type of virus or bacterium is involved or a specific type of chemical imbalance occurs or a particular part of the body fails in a certain way, Aspergers is more like Wittgenstein’s “family words”.

There is a grab-bag of Aspie traits, including mind-blindness (difficulty in reading other people non-verbally), physical clumsiness, avoidance of eye contact, repetitious behaviors like rocking back and forth, aversion to change, heightened sensitivity to loud noise or other body sensations, intense interest and mastery regarding the details of certain particular topics (maps, computer programs, jet airliners, musical instruments, etc.), and the tendency to say way too much about those areas of interest when speaking with another. But any one particular Aspie seldom has all of the typical characteristics. Each Aspie seems to be untypical in some regard; I’ve heard of Aspies that are skilled atheletes (not at all clumsy), who are good at party-conversation (don’t drone on too long about space satellites or such), and who aren’t unusually sensitive to sound or touch. But there’s always other stuff that set them apart from the crowd.

So, has Aspergers become just a grab-bag for people who seem “different” without any particular, identifiable neuro-psychotic conditions? Well, I think there is some common ground behind the popular idea behind “Aspergers”; but for the most part, I believe that common ground ultimately resides in somehow being “different” in how they would relate to others, without that difference being particularly harmful or threatening to others. Many professionals in the psychology and psychotheraputic fields seem to disdain this popular idea of “Aspergers”, and are seeking to rein it in by eliminating Aspergers Sydrome from the upcoming Diagnosis and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, i.e. DSM 5. Everything will now become different degrees of autism.

I guess that the psycho pros will feel better given that autism until recently was a mostly scientific term, one that could be fairly strictly applied. So now, an articulate and intelligent person who likes people and tries to relate to others but has different notions about how to go about that will be lumped in with a largely non-communicative individual who stares at a wall most of the day. I personally think that the “Aspergers” concept expanded as it became better known to the public over the past 10 or 15 years, and became a “Wittgenstein word” for good reason. I think that our society has a need for the “Aspergers” concept, a need that will not be satisfied by the “autism spectrum” of DSM 5. I believe that the psychologists are tightening up the definition as to eliminate the “slackers” and “whiners”, the self-DXer’s who have all their marbles but just insist on relating to the world in a peculiar way. They are saying “hey, these people aren’t our problem; they are a societal issue, a topic for sociology”.

And maybe they are right; perhaps many of us who think of ourselves as Aspies are challengers. We challenge social conventions in ways that aren’t entirely irrational. Perhaps we are rebels without a cause; we just do things in certain ways, not to protest anything. It’s just how life looks to us, just that “different drummer” that we hear playing. When the majority, the “neurotypicals”of the world are pressed to explain why an Aspie is doing things wrong, their answer would ultimately be “that’s just not how things are done around here; we want people who play by the rules in relating to us”. I.e., Aspie-ways are just not in synch with how social trends have evolved. In many instances, there is no good reason why an Aspie’s peculiar way of looking at things could not have become the majority view, however. It’s just like BetaMax versus VCR or Windows versus Linux; one system had better luck and eclipsed the other mostly because of random factors and coincidences.

I hope that the sociologists will find a place for the “Aspergers” concept in their studies and services. I personally have gained much self-understanding in learning about Aspergers. I don’t think that an expanded autism-spectrum would have helped me as much. I believe that a lot of baby will be thrown out in the DSM 4 bathwater when shrink-world officially banishes “Aspergers”. I hope that a “save Aspegers” movement emerges, as I am convinced that there is a need for and value to the modern, popular, fuzzy notion of what it means to be an “Aspie”.

Perhaps Wittgenstein himself was something of a socio-Aspie. He certainly was focused on abstract things. He was was obsessed with morals, mathematics and language. He tried to teach high school somewhere in Austria and was forced out by the local residents. Later on, lived alone in a hut in Norway for a time. He sounds pretty geeky, with an off-beat way of relating to people. So, welcome to the Aspergers family, Ludwig!!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:17 pm      

  1. Jim, I agree with you 100%–partially. (I know that doesn’t make much sense, but let me explain.) I think that this business of “lumping” Asperger’s Syndrome with autism in the DSM is ridiculous!

    Now for the “partially” part: I also think that when one gets right down to understanding people, absolutely every individual is a “class” by him/herself. No one person fits in any real category.

    So, while there is a need for some very broad labels for people because some people are really so far out on the standard deviation curve that they really need to be “classified” (boy, how I hate that word, but sometimes one must use it) in certain ways, for the most part people generally are unique individuals fitting no “class” whatsoever–or each being a class him/herself.

    I can understand the usefulness one gets from some of the various attempts at “classifying” people; I myself when I was young was helped by studying the “classifications” that were current in the 1950s and 1960s; they helped me understand myself too. There is something to be said for that aspect of things.

    But on the other hand, in the end, each individual is unique and that very uniqueness puts him/her in a “class” separate and individual by him/herself. I tend to think that our society seems to have a need for everyone to “fit” somehow in a category. I’m not sure why there seems to be a need for that. Maybe it somehow makes individuals feel more secure–the “I’m not alone; I belong somewhere” syndrome? I say, OK, if it makes people feel better; I’ll go along with that to a certain extent. Yet, in the end; each person is so individual why would anybody want to take away that diversity and beauty and goodness?

    As to the psychologist and psychiatrists lumping Asperger’s in with autism–what a mistake that’s going to be. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — June 10, 2011 @ 5:55 am

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