Published by the American Psychiatric Associat...

Published by the American Psychiatric Association, the DSM-IV-TR provides a common language and standard criteria for the classification of mental disorders. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The newest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association will be without the term “Asperger’s Syndrome.” Instead, what was once called Asperger’s will be grouped under “Autistic Spectrum Disorders” without a specific name attached to it. Although there will not be an “official” label, it will most likely be informally considered “high-functioning autism,” or “mild autism.”

As someone formally diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, it makes no difference in my condition whether I am labeled as “Asperger’s” or as being a high-functioning person (or someone with “mild autism spectrum disorder”) on the scale of Autism Spectrum Disorders. It was difficult to distinguish between patients diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome and those diagnosed with “high functioning autism,” so the American Psychological Association (APA) decided to simply matters by grouping Asperger’s as a form of autism.

Although I understand the reasons for the change in diagnostic terminology, the term “Asperger’s Syndrome” served a useful purpose by distinguishing individuals who could function well overall, yet who had excessive interests and quirks, the inability to look people in the eye, the “little professor syndrome” and so forth, from those individuals with more severe forms of autism.

The new labeling system wreaks havoc on the various Asperger’s social groups online, and some say that they will continue to use the older label. In addition, although autistic people deserve the same respect that any other individual deserves, sadly, there is a stigma attached to the word “autism” that has not yet been attached to the term “Asperger’s Syndrome.” If someone were to notice eccentric behavior and ask me, “What in the world is wrong with you? Are you having a complete conversation with yourself?” it would be difficult to say, “I’m sorry I disturbed you. I’m mildly autistic.” The natural reaction is either to (1) consider me a liar since “everyone knows that autistic people can’t communicate with others, or to (2) think that autistic people are “crazy” and back away. The implications for encounters between law enforcement and individuals diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome–which has been a mixed experience at best with some people with Asperger’s being shot to death–are unknown. How would a police officer react to a self-report of high-functioning or mild autism? Would the reaction be different from an officer who hears the words “Asperger’s Syndrome?” In the case of students, would teachers use a different methodology teaching a student with “mild autism” vs. teaching a child with “Asperger’s Syndrome?” Would parents react differently? What about companies–would they be less likely to hire someone diagnosed as “autisic” than someone diagnosed with Asperger’s? Although autism has an organic basis in structural changes in the brain, the classification of conditions and diseases by medicine is in part objective, in part subjective. Labels may have a basis in reality, but they also help shape public perception of a disease or a condition. Consider the term “AIDS” and the negative connotations it brings. “Autism” also has emotional connotations that are not as evident in the term “Asperger’s Syndrome.

Overall, I see no need for the new changes in the DSM to go into effect. It would be better to keep the term “Asperger’s Syndrome” with all its ambiguity rather than to replace it with another, even broader label.

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