Yes, I am going to talk about…autism. The last time I did so I was inundated with people trying to convince me of the dangers of immunizations and their causal link to autism. I really, really, really don’t want to go anywhere near that one.
No, I am not going to talk about the cause of autism; I am going to talk about my observation of the rise of the diagnosis of autism, and a plausible explanation for part, if not most of this fact. The thing that spurs me to write this post is a study by the CDC which was quoted in the NY Times:
The new report estimates that in 2008 one child in 88 received one of these diagnoses, known as autism spectrum disorders, by age 8, compared with about one in 110 two years earlier. The estimated rate in 2002 was about one in 155.
The rise in numbers is cited as one of the main evidences for some external source – a new thing in our environment – that is causing this rise. The article, however, gives another clue:
The frequency of autism spectrum diagnoses has been increasing for decades, but researchers cannot agree on whether the trend is a result of heightened awareness, an expanding definition of the spectrum, an actual increase in incidence or some combination of those factors. Diagnosing the condition is not an exact science. Children “on the spectrum” vary widely in their abilities and symptoms, from mute and intellectually limited at one extreme to socially awkward at the other.
Children with such diagnoses often receive extensive state-financed support services — which some experts believe may have contributed to an increase in numbers.
That last sentence holds the golden ticket. What would make me think this? My experience.
For a brief, heady period in the history of autism spectrum diagnosis, in the late ’90s, I had Asperger syndrome.
There’s an educational video from that time, called “Understanding Asperger’s,” in which I appear. I am the affected 20-year-old in the wannabe-hipster vintage polo shirt talking about how keen his understanding of literature is and how misunderstood he was in fifth grade. The film was a research project directed by my mother, a psychology professor and Asperger specialist, and another expert in her department. It presents me as a young man living a full, meaningful life, despite his mental abnormality.
“Understanding Asperger’s” was no act of fraud. Both my mother and her colleague believed I met the diagnostic criteria laid out in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition. The manual, still the authoritative text for American therapists, hospitals and insurers, listed the symptoms exhibited by people with Asperger disorder, and, when I was 17, I was judged to fit the bill.
I exhibited a “qualified impairment in social interaction,” specifically “failure to develop peer relationships appropriate to developmental level” (I had few friends) and a “lack of spontaneous seeking to share enjoyment, interests, or achievements with other people” (I spent a lot of time by myself in my room reading novels and listening to music, and when I did hang out with other kids I often tried to speak like an E. M. Forster narrator, annoying them). I exhibited an “encompassing preoccupation with one or more stereotyped and restricted patterns of interest that is abnormal either in intensity or focus” (I memorized poems and spent a lot of time playing the guitar and writing terrible poems and novels).