I’ve been thinking a lot, lately, about how we define autism and whether that is even accurate. I’ve talked before about how mainstream society seems to think that the symptoms of our autistic distress actually constitute autism. That’s just plain wrong, as far as I’m concerned.
I consider autism itself to be a distinct neurotype, which has been very well-concealed over the aeons, because societies in the past provided ways for all members of a community to contribute according to pre-set guidelines. As we have seen those “exoskeletons” of social conventions dissolve, our “endoskeletons” of individual identity – our strengths and weaknesses, our diagnosed conditions and disorders – have become increasingly pronounced, to replace the social exoskeletons of customs and conventions which used to define where our relative strengths and weaknesses lay.
Of course, within the context of considering autism a distinct and commonly occurring neurotype (rather than anomalous disorder), the question comes up about what purposes the DSM-V actually serves. That manual of diagnostic conventions, so useful when it comes to insurance billing and so revered when it comes to identifying issues that need to be addressed, effectively pathologizes autism as a disorder, rather than identifying it as a specific aspect of the human condition.
Of course, getting rid of the DSM and or removing autism from its listing, has a slim-to-none chance of happening. But if we’re stuck with it (for the time being – after all, homosexuality was eventually stricken from that record) might there not be another practical use for that manual? Might it not actually come in handy in certain ways?
From where I’m sitting, on this bright snowy morning, 40 miles west of Boston, Massachusetts, it seems to me that the DSM and the degree to which artistic people “meet the criteria” can actually help to determine where society itself is breaking down in regards to its treatment of its autistic members.
If we consider that problematic behavior is actually a symptom of individual distress in the face of essentially mutable conditions, rather than a sign of permanent personal dysfunction, we can measure the degree of the different criteria and how they occur in an individual to identify where the community at large is failing them.
If extreme sensitivities are noted, that could indicate a heightened degree of environmental stress, whether from noxious scents, chemical excess, or extreme social pressure that is completely inappropriate for that individual’s personality and innate tendencies.
If lack of eye contact is noted, that can actually indicate hyperfunctionality in terms of processing information, where the individual is actually focusing intently on the subject at hand, rather than engaging in the social back-and-forth of eye contact, expressly so that they can reply effectively and appropriately. The more eye contact is noted as a deficit, the more it’s an indicator of needed training by the person who’s complaining about that behavior. They need to be educated about what goes on when we are not looking them in the eye, and their anxiety around that behavior (which keeps them from dealing effectively with us) needs to be dealt with.
That is to say, they need to deal with it, not put the onus of that effort on us.
All in all, I think that autism shows up much less as a disorder, when you’re in the company of like-minded people with comparable neurotypes. Within the company of your autism spectrum peers, you’re not going to be considered dysfunctional or disordered – unless your behavior wanders into the fringes and disrupts community interactions and cohesiveness.
All in all, I think that including autism in the DSM-V is problematic, but since it’s already there, and since there is almost no chance of it actually being removed in the near future, we might as well make use of that.
It may be grasping at proverbial straws… but until things change for the better, and autistic people are relieved of the stigma and drama around the official definitions of “autism”, we might just be able to wring some benefit from that sodden rag of medically induced hubris, after all.