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Saturday, January 21, 2012
Aspergers ... Psychology ...

I’ve had my problems with the rest of the human race. I generally like people, but as I get older I have more and more trouble relating to them. Maybe it’s just a part of the process of turning into an old fogie. But for a while there, I thought it was all because of Aspergers Syndrome.

I first read about Aspergers maybe 5 or 6 years ago, and a lot of the characteristics of Aspie-people seemed to hit home with me. Supposedly, kids who like science and who get rabidly interested in something like trains and railroads often have Aspergers, especially if they maintain such obsessive interests into adulthood. I still like science but I can’t say that I’m currently obsessed with trains. Nonetheless, I did have a Lionel layout as a kid, and I was a fairly rabid railran photographer while in high school and college and even a decade or so beyond that (ah, innocent days, fun days they were).

So then, after discovering Aspergers, it seemed as though I finally had my finger on what it is that sometimes makes me feel like a triangle peg in an elliptical hole. I must be an Aspie! I bought books, read articles, checked out the various Aspie web sites, and even went to a monthly Aspie support meeting for a while there. I was proud of my “self-DX” (self-diagnosis), which a whole lot of other people claiming to be Aspies base their claim on.

But finally it dawned on me that whatever else is wrong with me, I’m not autistic, not even a “high functioning” autistic. The group meetings helped me to see this. I tried to relate to the other people there by greeting them and wishing them well as we departed, and it occurred to me that I was the only one doing that. Almost a faux pas with that group. No, an actual faux pas, definitely out of line with them. Let’s say that they weren’t very emotionally reactive, not at all. I’m not exactly a warm and outgoing person in most circumstances, but I couldn’t go THAT far. No, whatever else my problems are, I’m not an Aspie.

And yet, sometimes I sure act like one. It’s my way of reacting to stress and uncertainty. After I feel safe, I enjoy “emoting” with others, raising and lowering my voice for dramatic effect, smiling, even acting silly (up to a point . . . well, sometimes even beyond the point, like when I drank three margaritas and got sick because I was having a good time with a group).

Unfortunately, I don’t have that many “safe havens” with other people, so I often switch over to a highly withdrawn state. It depends on the circumstances; it’s a “dynamic” thing, almost a split-personality thing like Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde. Jim the Quasi-Aspie and Jim the Schmoozer / Raconteur.

I just read an article on the NY Times site about the new DSM 5 “diagnostic standard manual” now being prepared by the American Psychological Association to replace the DSM 4, and how the APA proposes to tighten up standards on just who is autistic and who is not. Supposedly the APA is ditching the whole “Aspergers Syndrome” diagnosis and merging everything into an “autistic spectrum”. And even that spectrum definition will now make it harder for those previously considered “autistic and high functioning” to be so diagnosed. I basically think this is a good thing, although I share the concerns being voiced by those who have been diagnosed with these “peripheral autism” options from DSM 4 (e.g., Aspergers and Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified), who could now have their funding and program support from government and private insurance sources cut off.

But there are a lot of people who, like myself, got interested in Aspergers as discontented adults and embraced it so as to claim, “this is what’s wrong with me, it’s not my fault after all”. And then they (we) go to meetings and talk themselves up on videos and web sites, but often don’t make an appointment with a shrink. You can see the disdain caused by this amongst those who are under professional care; just take a surf among the many web sites and blogs and discussion boards about Aspergers and autism. The issue is whether people who are not professionally diagnosed as autistic should go around claiming that they have some sort of autism-related disorder (most often, Aspergers Syndrome), through “self diagnosis”. Here is a blog discussion on this, and a discussion board thread, and a video opinion, as some examples. Sometimes the self-DX’ers find a friendly shrink who is willing to affirm their “autism solution”, given how loose the DSM 4 standards are anyway. So even those professionally diagnosed may be questionable.

I do agree that autism is a serious condition and it should not be exploited by those who have their social difficulties and discomforts but are otherwise getting by in life (as I am). It could well be that the APA is trying to keep the licensed therapists from handing out “autism spectrum” diagnoses like doctors used to hand out Valium, and that is mostly a good thing. BUT, then again – psychological conditions are NOT always “digital”; it’s not like cancer or schizophrenia, whereby you have it or you don’t. Our minds and the psychological processes in our brains are very dynamic. We can be healthy and happy in some circumstances, and neurotic or otherwise unbalanced in others. We can swing back and forth in varying cycles; like a bad mood that passes in a few hours, or a bout of depression that can go on for weeks. There’s the DSM 4 (and soon, DSM 5), with it’s defined symptoms and diagnoses; and then there’s real life, and our real brains and genes, which switch back and forth into differing modes doing different things, depending on the past and current states of our environment.

I guess that I’m trying to say that autism should be more strictly defined in a static fashion, such that adequate attention and resources can find their way to those whose lives and possibilities are severely restricted by the constant dysfunctions in their minds. However, the whole notion of Aspergers (perhaps ‘the story of Aspergers’) should not be entirely discarded, given that it may help those people – and that may be a whole lot of those people, including myself – who find socializing difficult sometimes and need a mirror to see just how their own behaviors can make this worse (and thus find behaviors that make it better). There should still be room in a DSM for “Aspergers lite” or “Aspergers dynamic”, for “situational Aspergers”. Not so much as a diagnosis, not as a way to get government or insurance money, but more as a means for all of us to understand each other; and most importantly, understand our own selves better.

PS — the newspaper that got me going down the Aspergers track has finally set me free from it. There is an article on the NY Times web site about Aspergers overdiagnosis, and also a personal story of a young guy who was professionally diagnosed with Aspegers but later realized that he was just going thru a bad time. But still, I would venture to guess that the whole Aspergers mis-adventure helped this fellow to understand himself better. I believe that theory would also apply to me.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:37 pm      

  1. Jim, The bottom line as I see most of all this business of “diagnosing” this person or that person with this or that mental health problem is that much of it is a labeling of people that simply should not take place.

    OK, I can understand that often such labels are helpful in understanding how a person sees the world. But too often labeling becomes just that, a label that categorizes a person, becomes a reason for rejecting that person socially, when often simply accepting someone as he/she would deal with the situation so much faster and easier.

    Yes, I can see that people who have children who are seriously hindered in functioning in society need to know how/why their children are functioning the way they are–“labeled”. Yet, too often *no* consideration is given to the idea that each person is simply different from every other person, that our society simply needs to accept others who are “different” from us which is actually all the rest of the people in the world.

    And then too, no consideration is given to the fact that there are gradations or a continuum of each (most?) of the various labels in the DSM. Specifically, you mention schizophrenia as being like cancer—either you have it or you don’t. If I may note, people do not “have” schizophrenia; it is something they are. Then also, schizophrenia is something that has a continuum to it; those people who are so labeled tend to be more or less schizophrenic. And furthermore, when it comes right down to it, there are so many different “kinds” of schizophrenia that the word is simply a catch-all for a particular kind of wiring in the brain that makes that individual’s brain different from the majority.

    I’ve often tho’t that if everybody were autistic or schizophrenic (two very different categories of mental “problems”, then “regular” people would be the ones who needed labeling and would be considered as having something “wrong” with them.

    I 100% agree with you that any “Aspie-ism” you may have is either “situational” (as you call it) or perhaps a coping mechanism. I like very much your thinking that it is when you “feel safe” that you can tend to break out your “regular” self. Isn’t that the case with all of us?

    Furthermore, I tend to think that the people who often party the hardest are using that as some kind of mechanism to hide some problem inside themselves—a way to escape their “inside” situation.

    Thus, I tend to think that our society is way too judgmental about others and could use a good dose of simple acceptance of people as they are. Then most of us would “feel safe” and could be our “regular” selves, which may be very different from the self we show to society as a whole.

    And one last thing: I think that each of us has many different people inside of us—in a manner of speaking; given any situation, a person can tend to react in a way not typical of that individual—as “another person”, so to say. As you mention, at times you can be on the “Aspie” side in your response to situations involving people; at other times you can “let loose” (again, so to say).

    Again, being a person is not simple. I tend to think that there’s just too much of people not accepting people as they are. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — January 22, 2012 @ 6:53 pm

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