Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Yes, You May Have Asperger's - Just Check With Your Doctor First

A friend of mine linked me to an article on self-diagnosis and why it's not necessarily a good thing, but there are quite a few things wrong with it and I'm really quite put out by the fact that these assumptions are still going around.

So we're going to have a little talk.

Trigger warnings, by the way - this article has an argument in it that justifies cases of child abuse.

Let's get started here and shatter a few of the fallacies in here.
Everyone, to some extent, has symptoms of autism: it’s a natural outcome of how the brain works. Our species has evolved to have certain mental traits that support our social nature: we excel at facial recognition (to the extent that we might see faces in a grilled cheese sandwich, or in sand dunes on Mars); we are more empathetic towards fellow humans than towards other animals; we unconsciously negotiate sexual interest. Autistic people have poor social skills because these parts of brains are innately limited—a genetic throwback to a pre-evolved brain.
Nope. Autism is not a genetic throwback to a pre-evolved brain, especially given that people on the autism spectrum are for the most part of average or above average intelligence. In fact, with the prevalence of social media these days, the social playing field is actually becoming more level - since more young people are using social media and texting to communicate, their face-to-face social skills are actually declining. [Studies have been out on this for years - here's one and here's another.] If anything, because of humankind's technological advances more and more people's brains are functioning like ours and not like neurotypical brains traditionally have.
Compared to society at large, furries are collectively further along the autistic spectrum. Symptoms of this might include our flair for technical work, such as IT and the sciences, and perhaps in our enjoyment of fursuits, which create a ‘deindividualized’ social environment.
I am not a furry, but never, ever generalize an entire subculture. EVER. This would be like me saying all of my fellow library science students are on the spectrum, and we're clearly not. But this isn't the biggest flaw in the argument. That's coming up now:

It’s common for people with Asperger’s disorder to characterize themselves as feeling like a non-human, like an alien tourist in a strange society. It’s easy to see why a young furry, who feels disconnected from the world and identifies as an animal-person, would find this compelling. Asperger’s disorder is also fairly high-profile because it’s relatable—mild autism is comparable to the less permanent condition of being a teenager—and also because of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a novel with an apparently autistic narrator. The narrator, Christopher, is an easy character for any young adult to relate to in the Holden Caulfield sense: he’s an outsider, confounded by his constant failure to act according to society’s fluid and unsaid rules. It’s an engaging read (although it flags badly in the second half as Haddon gamely tries to narrate action through Christopher’s limited perception of the world).

Anyone identifying with Christopher from The Curious Incident is almost definitely not autistic. To identify is to demonstrate empathy, the very trait that Christopher—and anyone with Asperger’s/ASD—lacks. The same logic can be applied more broadly: if you think you have autism, you almost certainly don’t.

ABSOLUTELY AND COMPLETELY INCORRECT. The biggest misconception about autism in general is that autistics lack empathy. This is absolutely untrue and has been proven time and time again in both studies and by many people encountering people on the spectrum, as well as people on the spectrum themselves. I wasn't diagnosed until age 20, and I actually feel empathy MORE STRONGLY than the average neurotypical, getting far too emotional over my friends' problems and not emotional enough over my own. I'm also female, so another argument in this article is thrown out. Mature women can and do have autism, you know.

By the way, I've identified with many fictional characters (and quite a few comedians and at least one baseball player) over the years. Does that make me any less Aspergian? No, of course not. People on the spectrum have heroes too because - shocker - WE'RE PEOPLE. I think that gets lost in the shuffle way too often here.
Autistic people are often unable to see themselves as part of society. Ironically, anyone who thinks that they don’t fit in is demonstrating that they fit in well enough to be aware of society’s norms. A feeling of alienation doesn’t imply alienation. It’s usually the opposite: a feeling of alienation implies that you are maturing and learning to assimilate.
This is the difference between being autistic and being a teenager: autistic people do not mature to the point that they can fully function within society. It’s also worth considering that maturation continues until we are about 30 years old, and that the skills that help us feel part of society—empathetic skills—are the slowest to develop (ref).
No again, sir. I do in fact feel like I don't fit properly into society, but it's because I don't fit the societal norm that popular culture and stereotyping have reinforced into my brain from a very early age. And guess what? I felt alienated growing up because, and you're not going to believe this, I was. My peers both bullied me and socially ostracized me, so I was actually more or less kept from socializing with people my own age as a kid. I was socially alienated. I wanted friends horribly - and many people on the autism spectrum do - but nobody wanted me as a friend.

P.S. I'm an autistic graduate student who writes two webcomics, works as a tour guide, commutes into the busiest city in the world for school, and actually has quite a few friends. I fully function in society despite my autism because autism is a spectrum.

Now we'll actually talk a bit about self-diagnosis, which I covered on this blog once before for a bit when I talked about the negative perceptions of Asperger's on the internet. Self-diagnosis is a tricky road to walk, but here's the advice I give people who think they might fit into the Asperger's mold:
  • Talk to a doctor. Once you've brought this up with your general practitioner, he/she/they can help you find a psychiatrist who can properly diagnose you.
  • Antisocial =/= Asperger's. This is one of my biggest pet peeves, and it seems like these were the people that the article was actually aimed at to begin with - people who assume that Asperger's is identified by antisocial behavior. It's not, and we actually like being social, but struggle with how to do it in a way that won't get us ostracized or bullied. If you're antisocial, you're highly likely to not be autistic. These are two separate mental conditions entirely.
  • Don't declare your self-diagnosis until you've had it medically confirmed. If you do so and you're misdiagnosing yourself, you're going to look like an idiot and won't be taken seriously. Do tell trusted people that you think you may have something - even Asperger's - but that you have to check with medical professionals to get an official diagnosis.
And one more thing from the end of this article:
If you have self-diagnosed as having Asperger’s, or if you were diagnosed when young, it may be time to reconsider.
Self-diagnosis is something that you need to check out with a medical professional before you confirm it, yes, but if you were diagnosed as a young child...well, I hate to break it to you, fellow, but you don't grow out of an ASD. You learn to cope with it and develop your social skills through therapy (my therapist has personally done a smashing job with me), but it's not something you grow out of because it's a neurological variation. It's an actual difference in the brain. It's going to be permanently there in some capacity for your entire life because it's literally a physical difference - a quick Google search turns up tons of images of brain scans to show these differences, as well as the accompanying articles (which are fascinating reading, although I'd like to see more ASD women in the studies since we tend to be overlooked).

Anyhow, I apologize for getting worked up, but as long as these misconceptions still float around people on the spectrum, myself included, are going to be sorely misrepresented and misunderstood.

tl;dr: If you suspect you may have Asperger's or are on the autism spectrum, talk to your doctor and get a proper diagnosis from a trusted psychiatrist. Also make sure, though, that you actually know what Asperger's actually entails and that you're not mistaking it for something else, because misconceptions like the ones seen above are often the cause of a lot of strife.


  1. Thanks so much for posting this- I read this article myself and it really made me angry and doubt myself! I am soon to be tested for aspergers as I have gone through a myriad of diagnosis by myself and my therapist. What brought us to Aspergers was an original diagnosis of OCD. I am worried about being tested because I am not entirely sure I do have it and don't want to be embarrassed by making a fuss about something I do not have. I actually have what I would describe as extreme empathy and like you said, overwhelmed often by other peoples problems but actually lack empathy for my own. I actually feel emotion very strongly- what is missing, is that I cannot express it and find it very difficult to define and name emotions. I don't know yet if I have AS but all I can say is that it would explain a hell of a lot and make me feel less like I am failing as a NT. Thanks and all the best, Emily

    1. That's the problem with certain articles - the way they're worded makes people confused, and when there's misinformation involved in there it gets even more puzzling!

      OCD and Asperger's often go hand in hand - I actually have both. I had a mental breakdown in 2009 due to my OCD as a sophomore in college and because of that we were able to also finally pin down my Asperger's diagnosis that summer. What you're describing definitely sounds like how I felt pre-diagnosis. I felt too strongly for other people's problems (and of course overlooked my own) and yet had trouble properly expressing my emotions and couldn't always describe them.

      Don't be afraid to get tested, because if you don't have Asperger's it just means you've ruled out one more thing and you're closer to narrowing down what you actually have! It can sometimes be a lengthy process to figure out what's going on in the mind, and there's no pass/fail in this sort of testing. Having or not having something isn't embarrassing, it's just a step towards figuring out solutions.

      If you need advice on anything, let me know!