Content warning: Discussion of negative stereotypes of people on the spectrum.
With the release of the DSM V, we saw many changes to diagnostic criteria, classifications, and disorders listed within. One of the most notable changes, one that has received the most attention, is the elimination of Asperger’s which has now been merged into the more overarching Autism Spectrum Disorders. There has been a great deal of debate as to whether or not this is a good change with people from all walks of life weighing in on different sides. While much of this is debated from a clinical perspective and the effects upon diagnosis, another area that has received attention, and should be given more, is the effects of this change upon those already diagnosed with Asperger’s or those not yet diagnosed who would have fallen into this classification through the old standards.
I have known about Asperger’s since I was in middle school when one of the children I baby sat was diagnosed. Of course, what I knew was very much so the text book ideas from over a decade ago. I was taught the deficit model of Asperger’s, focused solely upon what the child could not do or do as well as the neurotypical population. In the following years I met and worked with many people who had been diagnosed with Asperger’s and gained a better (though still severely lacking) understanding of Asperger’s. Throughout all of this, I never made the connection between what I was learning and my own personal experience of the world.
While I technically knew that Asperger’s was a branch of Autism, the two diagnoses existed within separate realms within my mind, though I didn’t consciously think of it as such. It wasn’t until I started exploring the idea that I am autistic that I realized the drastically different ideas these words conjured for me. By all diagnostic criteria and materials I have read, I have Asperger’s, though with the changes to the DSM, that is a classification that no longer exists. As I began to explore this and talk about it with Sean, I found that it was much easier for me to refer to myself as an Aspie or as having Asperger’s than it was to call myself autistic. I was bothered by how difficult it was for me to use the word so I started to search myself for why that was the case, and I’ve found it comes down to internalized stereotypes.
The Aspie that had compiled in my head from all that I had heard and seen was someone who had difficulties with eye contact, had sensory issues, was obsessive about something weird, didn’t understand or desire relationships with others, but was highly intelligent and gifted in some way. On the other hand, the Autistic was someone non-verbal who was trapped in their own world, made loud sounds, moved around a lot, and was a different “mental age.” Just writing this down now causes me to squirm and cringe as I now know how wrong these stereotypes are. For me, there was a huge difference between Asperger’s and autism. Asperger’s was associated with high intelligence and a few quirks. Autism was associated with mental retardation and a hopeless future.
As I’ve begun reading blogs written by Autistic adults from all across the spectrum, I have been able to gain a far better understanding of autism which has helped break down the stereotypes I had built up in my head. Autistic people experience the world intensely, and sometimes this makes it hard or impossible for some to verbalize or control physical movements. A lack of verbalization does not indicate that the individual is unintelligent or unable to hear. Flapping arms and rocking bodies feel good and make the world easier to understand and tolerate. Many of us crave relationships with others, even if we struggle with how to make that happen or keep it up. Our senses feel too much and our minds take everything in. Those diagnosed with Asperger’s (or those of us who fit the diagnosis) share so many similarities with our non-speaking counterparts, just to different degrees of intensity.
I don’t know if the changes to the DSM are good or bad. I’m not sure how that will affect the treatment and care. I do know that the idea of the spectrum is important. There are many others out there that hold similar views of autistic people that I once held (and many others with highly negative views of both Asperger’s and autism). Now I find it far easier to say:
I am autistic.