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My Thoughts on the Changing Aspergers Label

Posted Mar 16 2010 12:00am
In the last few posts, I've looked at the two sides of the controversy over the changes to DSM V regarding the absorbtion of the Aspergers label into the general autism banner.

In this post, I want to give you my thoughts and position on the issue.


Label Recognition
Aspergers is quite obviously on the Autism spectrum. There's absolutely no doubt in my mind that they (aspergers and autism) share many traits and that often, though not always, the intervention required is also the same.

At the same time, I'm confused by all of the sub-labels in the autism spectrum. Like Aspergers, High Functioning Autism (HFA) is a successful "brand" bringing almost instant recognition but who amongst the general public knows how to refer to the other end of the spectrum?


Label Reliability
What exactly does "high functioning" mean anyway? I have met a range of people with this label and they ranged from "rain-man style" savants to people who could barely speak.

The problem with a level-indicating label is that it impacts the "brand recognition" of the other labels. If people meet a "savant", they're going to assume that all HFA's are "savants". If they meet someone who has difficulty talking, they'll write off anyone on, and particularly those "below" HFA, as non-functional. Having words like High, Medium and Low simply encourages people to make guesses about the differences rather than ask. This is the main reason that the autism label is so badly tainted.

This is more or less the same sort of logic we apply to black and white concepts like blindness. In the case of blindness, you're either blind, partially blind or NOT blind. There's no middle ground (actually there is but I'm not going there). We know which condition is "better" and which is "worse" without having to look anything up. Even in the simple case of blindness, neither label truly describes the condition and it has become necessary to introduce new labels, such as "colour-blindness" to deal with cases which don't fall into the usual range of conditions.

Autism is quite different to blindness. It doesn't deal with a single sense and it encompasses a far broader range of attributes and traits. The words "none, partial and full" do nothing to promote understanding, so why do we delude ourselves that high, medium and low carry any meaning either?


Useful Labels
The aspergers label is quite different to HFA even though they generally mean the same thing. With aspergers, you either know what the label means already - or you have to look it up. When you look it up, you don't simply get a rating of high, medium or low, you get a list of possible traits. In this way, aspergers is a far more communicative label than any of the others on the spectrum. It doesn't offer easy comparison with the other labels within the autism spectrum because, like the colour-blindness example earlier, there is no comparative operator (high/medium or low) in the label.


My Feelings on the Whole Label Names Issue
I could go on for a lot longer about the other issues with the label but I know what you've come here to read - so, without further ado, here it is.


I guess my view is based upon a few "rules";
  1. All parts of the spectrum should be recognised as spectrum disorders, therefore all parts should contain the word "Autism".

  2. All parts of the spectrum should be represented by non-referential labels, like "Aspergers" to prevent automatic comparison between labels. In time, as research continues, perhaps these labels too will split into sub-labels.

  3. Labels should describe a group of traits, not just one.

I'd really like to see "High Functioning Autism" disappear entirely to become;
  • "Aspergers Autism"
and perhaps the lower functioning parts of the spectrum should be referred to as;
  • "Kanner's Autism"
I'm sure there's probably quite a few levels in between which could be given names and their own particular spin on traits.

Similarly, I'd like to see the comorbids included in the label. My eldest son would then be described as;
  • "Aspergers Autism" (with LD/ADHD)

Finishing Off
I know that I've ignored all the other issues in this post, such as how funding is allocated but I firmly believe that if you get the labelling right, everything else will follow.

I'm leaving you with this example of cats to show how ridiculous the spectrum is now versus how I'd like it to be.

This is how the spectrum currently is. Low, Medium and High based on one particular attribute level of functioning - or in this example, length of fur. You'll notice that the cat on the end has the word aspergers next to it but that it isn't even recognised as a "cat". You may also notice that the only difference between Aspergers and the high cat is the colour of the fur.

We can infer from this picture that high cats are much better than medium cats and that low cats are really not good at all. In fact, if it's common practice to institutionalise some of the medium cats, then surely, you can presume that all low cats can be institutionalised without further investigation.

It's not a useful criteria.

Below is the means by which these cats are really categorised. If you don't know about Sphynx cats , then there's a wiki page which tells you all about them. The same goes for all the other types of cats. Even better, there's plenty of space for new types of cats; tortoise shell cats, tuxedo cats, calico cats, muchkin cats and the list goes on.

Why do our pets get better labels than us?
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