Well Being

Asperger’s Diagnosis Dropped From New Psych Guidelines

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I once went out with a guy who had Asperger's syndrome, something I knew because he told me, on our first date, by way of warning me that he might not always pick up on things like sarcasm. Had he not disclosed this, I don't think I would have picked up on anything (I've seen much less ability to pick up on intonation or social cues from plenty of non-autistic people). But that's the thing about Asperger's — people with the disorder often seem fairly “normal” and are capable of living relatively normal lives. Which is why there's been an uproar about new mental health guidelines reclassifying an Asperger's diagnosis as part of the “autism spectrum.”

Often described as a ‘milder' or high-functioning form of autism, Asperger's is marked by social problems, repetitive behavior, obsessive interests, high intelligence and/or physical clumsiness. It doesn't involve the language and cognitive issues common with autism, nor the severity of trouble with social interaction. 

I learned what Asperger's was from a character on Boston Legal; he was stiff, fidgeting, incredibly phobic of touching and just generally a social mess (though a brilliant lawyer). But many people with Asperger's are closer to my date — broadly socially “normal,” but with a few social or emotional deficits. 

Make that were — as of this weekend, Asperger's is no more, as far as psychiatric diagnoses go. The latest version of psychiatry's “bible,” the Diagnostic & Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders, was approved over the weekend, its first serious revision since 1994.

The new DSM-V contains minor and major changes to the criteria used to diagnose and treat mental health problems (though full details won't come 'til May 2013). And one of the biggest changes is lumping all types of autism together as autism spectrum disorders. The autism spectrum will include everything from severe autism to what would have once been diagnosed as Asperger's.

The term “Asperger's” will no longer be in use as a diagnosis — if you had Asperger's syndrome, you're now, by definition, autistic. Autism carries connotations of Rain Man and children who can't speak rocking violently, so you can imagine why Asperger's patients (or parents of kids with Asperger's) are so enthused about the new classification.

But according to the Associated Press, some people like the new guidelines — like Kelli Gibson of Michigan who has four sons, all diagnosed with different labels, including autism and Asperger's, in the old DSM. “To give it separate names never made sense to me,” Gibson told the AP. “To me, my children all had autism.”