7 Things the Media Gets Wrong on Asperger’s

Media coverage of Asperger’s sometimes gets it wrong. Here’s what:

Asperger’s is a “mental illness.” Just no. Asperger’s is a developmental difference that can lead to certain disabilities. When a commentator chooses to define us by our disability, we get labeled with a “neurological disorder,” which is still not quite the same as a mental illness. Our brains have developed differently, and some of those differences may present a challenge, but these differences are not necessarily dysfunctional and they are not the result of disease. That said, there is no shame in mental illness, and Aspies can exhibit cognitive and behavioral differences that respond to psychological and psychiatric treatments.

Asperger’s can be “overcome” or “cured.” Also no. Aspies can learn to compensate for deficits or challenges due to their developmental difference, but it is a lifelong difference. Recently, John Elder Robison’s account (Look Me in the Eye) of having participated in a neurological experiment (transcranial magnetic stimulation) that improved his cognitive empathy is making the rounds (the new book is Switched On). He claims to have had the experience, however temporarily, of being to feel and perceive things he was unable to feel and perceive before. He doesn’t claim a cure himself–just a transformation that is, so far as we know, unique to him, but others writing about the book have made the claim. To my view, the jury is still out on whether the experience will generalize to our population. And, even if that were possible, there are many within our community who wouldn’t choose to change who they are at such a fundamental level.

Aspies don’t mind doing “boring” and “repetitive tasks.” Got something tedious? Hire an Aspie. Just no. Aspies are keen on identifying, tracing, and completing patterns. We are systems thinkers. Does that mean we are able to tolerate boredom better than others? In fact, we tolerate boredom less well (one of our defining traits is a passionate devotion to “special interests”), but what bores you may not be the same as what bores us.

Aspies are “good with numbers and technology.” Many efforts to hire Aspies into the workforce currently focus on IT positions. This might work for some Aspies, but will it work for all of us?  Still no. Some Aspies are good with numbers and some are good with tech. However, one of the defining traits of Aspies is highly differentiated areas of ability and the areas of ability may differ. There are some Aspies who are actually more verbally than mathematically gifted, and one study has found that we have higher abilities than normal in “fluid problem-solving” (aka “abstract reasoning ability”).

Aspies “cannot tell a lie.” Just no. Aspies can learn to lie just like any other human being, especially in order to avoid getting into trouble. Most of us strongly prefer not to lie, and to our own disadvantage resist lying even in small ways, for reasons we don’t fully understand. We even have a tendency to share disadvantageous truths about ourselves or anything. I believe we tend to be straight shooters and rule followers because the system of social reality is set up that way, and we follow systems, preferring predictability, order, and even perfection. We also tend to be bad liars and we dislike having to conform to the social norms and expectations that would induce someone to lie to begin with.

Aspies are disproportionately mass murderers. Definitely no. Aspies don’t tend toward violence any more than other human beings. If you counted up all the mass murders historically or presently, most of them would not be Aspies. However, because we have the antisocial loner as a popular figure (not all Aspies are antisocial loners) for mass murderers (especially school shooters), the media has come to associate Asperger’s with these tragedies, even speculating on whether a shooter was thought to have or might have had Asperger’s. Even in cases where a shooter is a confirmed Aspie, at least one expert analysis claims that it is compounding psychopathology and not developmental difference alone that is probably an underlying cause in most cases. Perpetuating this association and speculating on it as a cause of violence is irresponsible. (Click here for a good opinion piece on this topic by Andrew Solomon.)

Aspies “lack empathy.” Finally, no. When people say that Aspies lack empathy, what they usually mean is that we are unable to feel for others. However, studies have shown that Aspies have a normal or even pronounced ability to feel for others. Many in our community feel especially close to animals. Aspies have a deficit not in affective empathy but in cognitive empathy. That is, we have difficulty imagining what others are thinking or feeling. We have weak “theory of mind.” Couple our weak theory of mind with a tendency to just say whatever we are thinking without social filters or to not do what is expected around a social occasion or as a social response to another’s expression of feeling, and we can seem insensitive, odd, or cold. However, once an Aspie is aware of what someone else is feeling and is able to understand why he or she is feeling that way, empathy is as likely to follow as it is for anyone not on the spectrum.

 

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