Depending on what you read or watch, Asperger’s Syndrome might seem the “in” diagnosis of the moment, the province of IT icons and celebrities. Or, AS might seem frightening. Certainly, in this time, people perceived as different or isolated are at risk of being stigmatized as potentially dangerous.
A New York Magazine article, “Autism Spectrum: Are You On It?” quotes Nora Ephron wondering if every man in America is on the spectrum. The diagnosis IS in fact all over: from popular TV characters in the “Big Bang Theory” to breathless speculations as to which politicians, business icons or celebrities have AS. Online lists include those who self-identify as AS, like Darryl Hannah, Susan Boyle and Dan Ackroyd and “possibles” ranging from Sir Isaac Newton to Michael Jackson and Bill Gates.
Atlantic Magazine quotes a mom whose son was newly diagnosed as thinking it was “shorthand for hyper-focused, often precocious talent and a socially awkward personality” described by best selling memoirs of successful people like John Elder Robison. The New York Times reviewed a comedy group called “Aspergers Are Us” which offers “comedy for all.” AS would seem admirable.
On the other hand, a Washington Post article from 2012 “Confusing Aspergers’s with Mental Illness, and Mental Illness With Evil,” talked about the fear of Asperger’s as “mental illness” after the Newtown shootings by a young man described as having AS. Hanna Rosin, the author, emphasized that while there was no connection between Asperger’s and violence, the connection was being made.
Discussions about gun control are sometimes focused on keeping guns away from the “mentally ill,” although in reality the mentally ill have no higher incidence of violence than the “normal” population. (They are more likely to be victims.) There is confusion – AS is not a mental illness. Are people capable of cold-blooded shootings necessarily mentally ill or AS? No. Psychopathy is not the same thing as AS.
My experience is that despite widespread press and admiration, there is very little practical understanding of Asperger’s (and no one has heard of NLD) in schools, by many families, in the workplace, and often, by the press. This pragmatically can result in misinterpretations, inappropriate responses and sometimes, fear.
I evaluated Alex, a young man diagnosed with Asperger’s, for a school system. Alex was a junior when he was suspended for threatening another student who had provoked him. This student had been Alex’s nemesis for years. Unfortunately, he was in a class where they were using knives for a project and the two boys were inexplicably paired together. Alex held up his knife and then said, “I could kill you.” The parents of the second student wanted him charged and the school wanted him expelled.
The psychiatrist who interviewed Alex found him to pose no threat, and neither did I. Alex had reached the end of his tolerance for harassment, and blurted out an expression of his anger. Because of his AS, he lacked the social judgment to realize the extent to which those words were inflammatory or could be used against him. He had no history of violence and no intent to harm anyone. When asked, he was remorseful for his choice of words and the chaos that resulted.
The school could not expel him, but they kept Alex isolated with individual tutoring even after he was “cleared.” In my professional opinion, this only made things worse. In general, the way the school treated Alex consistently lacked any understanding of AS or of how to helpfully work with AS students.
Alex was an extremely intelligent young man who loved reading Plato. He was intensely interested in science and wanted to go into biomedical research. Despite this, his college search was directed towards vocational schools and his vocational placement (which failed) was bagging groceries. Alex’s teachers didn’t like him because they didn’t understand why he was rude and didn’t smile or make eye contact.
It’s critical to have better education for administrators and teachers in schools, with an emphasis on practicality instead of labels and symptom lists, so they understand how AS students might behave in the classroom. School administrators might learn better ways to create a learning environment that is accepting and helpful rather than hostile. Teachers might learn about what to expect and how to encourage learning of all kinds. This would benefit students with AS as well as neurotypical students, who might learn about diversity.
It may be that shows like “American Family” and “Big Bang Theory” are paving the way for better understanding of AS, as “Will and Grace” was a pioneer in having a gay character. More press is needed on the extraordinary gifts and job skills of bright people with AS, who bring special traits and talents to the workplace. Press coverage should begin to explore and distinguish among AS, “mental illness” and psychopathy in covering horrific events.
Organizations supporting those with ASD need to focus not just on lower functioning individuals, but also on the many challenges experienced by those on the high functioning end of the spectrum, and on developing interesting, compelling training programs and materials to educate everyone.