New York Times Runs TWO "Aspergers is Fake" Editorials Today


One of the problems with defining autism only as a series of problematic behaviors, as neurotypical experts do, is that they can claim the autism has disappeared, or was never there, if the behaviors go away. The New York Times runs opinion pieces from two people today who take the position that autism can only be disabling, and any person who exhibits competence of any kind cannot truly be autistic.

Psychiatrist Paul Steinberg believes that many people diagnosed with Aspergers syndrome are just socially awkward and quirky:

Nevertheless, children and adults with significant interpersonal deficits are being lumped together with children and adults with language acquisition problems. Currently, with the loosening of the diagnosis of Asperger, children and adults who are shy and timid, who have quirky interests like train schedules and baseball statistics, and who have trouble relating to their peers — but who have no language-acquisition problems — are placed on the autism spectrum.

In recent years speculation has abounded that Albert Einstein must have had Asperger syndrome. Christopher Hitchens speculated that his intellectual hero George Orwell must have had Asperger. Indeed, Orwell had major problems fitting in at British preparatory schools — not surprisingly, he hated the totalitarian tenor of teachers and school administrators — but someone on the autism spectrum could probably never have become a police officer in Lower Burma, as Orwell did. Similarly, writers like Charles Morris have noted that Warren Buffett is thought to have a condition on the autism spectrum, presumably Asperger syndrome.

A 1992 United States Department of Education directive contributed to the over-diagnosis of Asperger syndrome. It called for enhanced services for children diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum and for children with “pervasive developmental disorder — not otherwise specified (P.D.D.-N.O.S.),” a diagnosis in which children with social disabilities could be lumped. The diagnosis of Asperger syndrome went through the roof. Curiously, in California, where children with P.D.D.-N.O.S. were not given enhanced services, autism-spectrum diagnoses did not increase. Too little science and too many unintended consequences.

Dr. Steinberg fails to make any actual arguments in his piece-- he just lists vaguely connected ideas and hopes the reader won't notice.  Because his idea of autism is based entirely on incompetence, any success in a person's life proves to the doctor that he cannot really have been autistic:

In his 2009 book “Parallel Play,” Tim Page, a former music critic for The Washington Post, describes his relief in being given an Asperger syndrome diagnosis as an adult and thus having an explanation for his longstanding social difficulties. But the rubric of a “social disability” would be more accurate than “autism spectrum” for people like Mr. Page, and potentially just as relieving. In addition, adults and children who have normal expressive and receptive language skills can benefit more fully from social-skills programs than adults and children with true autism. In fact, Tim Page learned a large measure of his social skills from an Emily Post course, just as Warren Buffett credits a Dale Carnegie program with changing his life.

For Mr. Buffett and Mr. Page, these social skills do not come naturally and automatically. But these men are able to compensate more completely than a truly autistic child or adult whose language deficiencies and cognitive deficits can often put him at a level of functioning in the mentally retarded range.

You can't be autistic-- autistic people are basically retarded, and retarded people can't actually do things.

Dr. Steinberg apparently has never heard of Temple Grandin, who disproves everything he writes.  And that's odd, because otherwise, his piece is entirely about famous and successful people-- apparently he thinks an Asperger's diagnosis comes with a book contract.

Even more depressing is the piece by Benjamain Nugent, who has decided that since his mother is an incompetent psychology professor who incorrectly diagnosed him with Asperger's, the whole thing must be fake:

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).

Nugent thinks his experience of being socially isolated in high school and growing more confident in adulthood must be common.  It is.  It's just that most people don't have overzealous mothers who falsely diagnose their own kids with conditions they later decide they cannot have because they fail to meet stereotypes:

Last year I sold a novel of the psychological-realism variety, which means that my job became to intuit the unverbalized meanings of social interactions and create fictional social encounters with interesting secret subtexts. By contrast, people with Asperger syndrome and other autism spectrum disorders usually struggle to pick up nonverbal social cues. They often prefer the kind of thinking involved in chess and math, activities at which I am almost as inept as I am at soccer.

The biggest single problem with the diagnostic criteria applied to me is this: You can be highly perceptive with regard to social interaction, as a child or adolescent, and still be a spectacular social failure. This is particularly true if you’re bad at sports or nervous or weird-looking.

Nugent apparently never learned that not all people with Asperger's syndrome are the same.  He was clearly damaged by his mother's treatment of him and has focused on Aspergers, rather than her, as the culprit.  That's understandable.

It's less understandable for the Times to run two ignorant editorials that take the point of view that Asperger's is not a real thing on the same day.