Are there alternatives to medically diagnosing people with Asperger's? Personality theorist, Steven Paglierani, thinks so. In this article, he explores how more spiritually minded diagnoses could improve how we offer help to people with Asperger's.
As a therapist, one thing which has always sickened me is the way medically minded folk impersonalize peoples' suffering. They justify their doing this as that they are being impartial and scientific, as if symptom relief were the holy grail of healing, and psycho babble, the requisite sacred text.
I see their doing these things as cold, heartless, and spiritually empty, and I see their lab rat medical labels as being potentially destructive to the hearts and souls of suffering people, certainly, at a time wherein these folks need all the personal strength they can muster. Ironically, the medically minded do this without once acknowledging the potential harm herein, let alone that "symptom relief" is not "healing." Were it so, we would have no such concept as being "asymptomatic." Thus, labeling groups of symptoms and saying these symptoms are the injury is like saying all women drivers are stupid. Or all men stink at diapering babies. No coincidence, medically minded personality theorists say these very kinds of things.
A part of me now realizes how negative I must sound. For this, I apologize. Even so, I know I am not alone in having these feelings. Many people, in fact, have told me they feel the same way. Even some M.D.'s. Unfortunately, unless we come up with a viable alternative, we are stuck with medically based diagnoses as the requisite sacred texts. Including medically diagnosing, "Asperger's."
So do I have a viable alternative? Yes, I do. And being a personality theorist, I have the theory, and practice, to back this opinion up. More so, in this article, I intend to introduce just such an alternative way to diagnose Asperger's. Along with some possible ways in which to use these criteria to better focus the help we give these folks.
Finally, lest you hear my use of the phrase, "these folks," as me being cold and impersonal, know I write these words as a man whom himself has Asperger's. A man who, by a mere accident of birth, has also escaped a few of the limits people with Asperger's normally suffer with. How? By having my "special interest" turn out to be something of interest to many people; human nature. No surprise that at age sixty, I have somehow managed to turn my special interest into an entire theory of human personality. As well as making this theory the doorway into helping make the world better. Especially for children.
Did Einstein have Asperger's?
Recently, I found myself miffed at yet another conference on Autism. In this case, it was a day long seminar lead by an M.D. from the child study center of a major Connecticut medical university. What angered me most were his ever present, patronizing remarks which implied that only M.D.'s can correctly diagnose Asperger's; moreover, that diagnosing anyone in less than four days was simply people out to scam money out of the poor families.
That this man was an ass is clear. What stayed with me, though, was a comment he made about people like Einstein and Bill Gates not having Asperger's. Why not? Because, he said, they do not need medical assistance.
What is important to see here is why they did not need this medical assistance. Why didn't they? Because their "special interest" generalized to an interest in which the general population is also interested. According to Dr. Iknowbest, though, people who achieve public success cannot possibly suffer from Asperger's.
Here again, we see a case wherein symptoms, rather than personal suffering, drives the diagnosis. However, before I address this misnomer further, I need to first make a disclaimer. I want you to know that I, in no way, mean to imply that all medically minded folks are asses. In truth, I relish reading medical studies such as those Harvard recently did, wherein they used brain imaging to explore the physical identity of Asperger's.
In truth then, I am only railing against people who use these kinds of studies to depersonalize human suffering. Moreover, saying Einstein did not suffer socially ignores everything we know about him as a person. To me, this is profoundly sad, and ignorant, especially in light of that his social ineptitude is a matter of record. As is that of people like Thomas Jefferson, Socrates, Lincoln and Newton, and so many others just like them.
That these men had a hard time socially connecting to others is simply fact. Newton, for instance, spent most of his life shut away in his apartment. Doing what? Thinking and writing about his "special interest"; physics. In a way, then, it's a miracle we even know of his work, given his aversion toward social shallowness and people in general.
Whatever the case, we do know him. Asperger's and all.
What is Asperger's?
So how do I define, Asperger's? Let me first define the spectrum to which it belongs; autism. I define autism as, "a social impairment wherein a person suffers from a pervasive category of socially disconnecting distractions." Moreover, what I mean by "socially disconnecting distractions" is that the person has the very tendency to which I have been referring; a personality sized "special interest."
What, then, is the principle symptom of this suffering?
The profound inability to connect to socially normal people. Especially to social peers.
The principle behavior which drives this behavior?
Compulsively focusing on things other than personal relationships at the expense of personal relationships. Here again, the tendency to have "special interests."
So where does Asperger's fit into this spectrum? Asperger's is an autism. Thus Asperger's is "a personality sized, minority life focus wherein the person suffers from a significant inability to connect with socially normal peers. This is autism. And it certainly applies to people with Asperger's.
What qualifies someone as having Asperger's then? The focus of the person's "special interests." Here, I would describe this tendency; the person's special focus, as stemming almost entirely from the personal tendency to make information more important than people.
This means the principle thing which distracts people with Asperger's is information and learning. Especially in and around their special interests. Moreover, without ever realizing it, they do this at the expense of their social relationships.
Okay. So I admit it. This way of defining Asperger's is a lot to digest. And requires a lot of letting go of old ways of thinking. Beginning with the idea that my focus here is not on some medical way in which to measure personal non conformity. Rather, my way of defining Asperger's focuses on how the person suffers personally. As a human being, and not as a lab rat.
Here then is step one in the journey toward treating people with Asperger's as human beings. Focus on their suffering. Not on their medical symptoms.
Where Does Asperger's Come From?
So where does Asperger's comes from? Before I tell you, allow me to describe a quality which underlies the whole of Emergence Personality Theory. This quality? Blamelessness; the idea that no one consciously causes their pain. This includes the parents of kids with Asperger's. Not one of them ever causes their child to get Asperger's.
Where does it come from then? Remember, I'm a personality theorist. Thus, I would never see logic alone as the proof my point of view is true. Logic is simply too cold and impersonal. To me then, either the ideas feel true to both my head and heart or they're not a condition of human personality.
So how do we find ideas that feel true to both the head and heart? Simple. Whatever condition we seek to describe must have once been normal. For instance, it was once normal for all of us to focus on sensation at the expense of our social relationships. When? In the first six months of life. Unfortunately, some babies never expand beyond this focus. Thus, they incur the condition we call, Kanner's Autism.
In the second six months of life, we all have another norm. We focus on learning how to use the ability we mastered in our first six months; sensation itself, to sense the things in our environment. Here again, some few babies unfortunately never focus beyond this point. In their case, we call what they have, OCPD; Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder. The compulsion to sense the things in their environment at the expense of connecting to people.
And Asperger's then? Asperger's comes into being sometime during a baby's second year of life. How? Well consider what is normal for babies to focus on during this stage in their lives. They focus on learning to understand the things they've learned to sense in the prior stage of their development. Thus, if babies do not move past this focus, they remain intensely interested in learning for learning's sake, even to the point wherein they never learn to connect to people.
Is there a fourth norm then? Absolutely. From age two to age four, kids normally rebel against any pressure put on them to simple parrot what other folks have learned. The "terrible two's," remember? So what does this turn out to be if the baby never loses this focus? ADD. Attention Deficit Disorder. And yes, I know medically minded folks now call this condition, ADHD. However, it seems incredibly silly to diagnose a kid as having ADHD without HD. Which happens to be the most common version of this lab rat label.
What Could We Be Doing To Better Help These Folks?
So what could we be doing to better help these folks? Well, in the case of Asperger's, we could be focusing our efforts on getting these folks to make "connecting" more important than "information."
Notice, I haven't simply said, teach them better social skills. In truth, teaching mouth readers to read eyes is a lot easier that you might imagine. In fact, given they believe you have something valid to say, folks with Asperger's are among the best folks of all to teach.
What else could we be doing? We could stop telling them they have a disease. They do not. They have a style of relating to the world which was once normal for all of us but no longer is. Even Dr. Iknowbest was once like this. Even though he refuses to admit it.
During this time, then, we all made "learning the meaning of things" our special interest. Moreover, in babies aged one to two, this focus is absolutely normal.
In people with Asperger's, however, this tendency never leaves them. Thus, what was once normal now impairs their very ability to see the beauty in people. And renders them unable to do much more than parrot authentic social connections. The very thing that ADD kids hate doing. Which in part explains why AS kids have the most difficult time with ADD kids.
What else could we be doing to help? For one thing, we could pay more attention to the way "focusing on information more than people" plays out in the very nature of peoples' language skills. In my work, I call this natural tendency, being "fussy" rather than "fuzzy."
For example, in one case, I taught the mom of a man with Asperger's why asking him to clean his room put him into a full blown panic attack. I explained to her that, to her son, her requests for him to clean his room required he fully grasp the nature of cleaning rooms. Not just his room. All rooms. Moreover, that without this comprehensive level of understanding, he simply didn't know where to begin. Thus, his panic and resistance.
As I told this mother these things, I saw this man vigorously nodding his head in agreement. At which point, I turned to him and explained that when his mother said these things, she was merely asking him to "do something to make your room look a little better. Anything."
"Fuzzy" and "fussy." Two very different qualities. Especially when applied to language. The ability to help here would come from teaching both those with Asperger's, and those who do not have it, to speak to each other in the other's language. In effect, they both become bilingual, in that they both learn to speak "fussy" and they both learn to speak "fussy."
Learning this alone has changed my whole outlook on the world. As well as allowing me to socially connect to others for the first time in my life.
Lastly, one more thing we could be doing is we could stop reminding people with Asperger's that some few folks with Asperger's became world changers. Why stop saying this? Because this only makes them, and me, feel even more inept. And more like failures.
People with Asperger's are not failures. They are simply in the minority, both language wise and interest wise. Moreover, to see this as true, simply imagine our world were it not for people like them. Easier in some ways. Yes. Certainly. But without the special interests of those few who have changed the world? I doubt I'd even be writing on this computer, let alone have ever had a chance to become a somewhat normal human being.
Finally, to the Dr. Iknowbest's of the world, I sincerely pray you'll reconsider. I know that underneath it all, you too want to help these folks and make the world better. Please know, however, that no good can never come from treating warm human beings like they are cold scientific data. And while this approach works fairly well on things like rocks and clouds, it downright stinks at helping people. We humans are just too complex. And too spiritually minded.
I write this with high hopes and warm regards,
P. S. For those who would like to read a more in depth explanation for this way of defining Asperger's, as well as it's etiology, see The Four Autism's. From there, you'll find a number of links to further explore this approach. As well as how Emergence Personality Theory explains the rest of what we think, feel, say, and do. Blamelessly, of course.The Four Autisms
The Social Paradox of Asperger's
What's it like to have Asperger's? (a young mother asks