"Modern Love" May Lead To Rash Of Armchair Diagnoses

In a year when three of my friends have declared that their boyfriends have Asperger’s Syndrome, I’m worried this heartfelt account may fan the flames. (Please don’t let “Aspergers” be the new “Bipolar.”)

First, the essay: David Finch’s marriage is in trouble, because, he feels, he’s no longer able to hide his “real self” – neurotic, distant, obsessive – from his wife, Kristen.

She started observing my unusual behaviors – rigid adherence to routines, unusual reactions to social stimuli, conditional regard for the needs of others – as I became less capable of hiding them. Before long, my endearing quirks multiplied and became exponentially more annoying until eventually her life was flooded with my neuroses.

Kristen, who happens to be a speech pathologist who works with autistic children, eventually comes to suspect her husband in fact has Asperger’s Syndrome, the Austism spectrum disorder frequently associated with obsessive behaviors, and that typically interferes with development of social skills and empathy. She administers a test at home – “an armchair diagnosis that would later be seconded by a health-care professional.” The two set about addressing David’s Asperger’s by targeting the specific behaviors jeopardizing their relationship.

Whenever my routine got disrupted, or I was made to do something that didn’t interest me, I would shut down, unable to engage in any constructive way. To get me to overcome this, Kristen started pushing me to my breaking point, backing off just before I was about to snap. If she thought I could handle 10 minutes of a TV show I didn’t pick, but 20 minutes would send me over the edge into meltdown, she would change the channel after 18 minutes.

The author is clearly a willing student, able to apply his uniquely single-minded focus to identifying “bad” behaviors, keeping track of them, addressing them. Indeed, his willingness to take complete blame for anything wrong with his relationship seems almost of a piece with it. He does a wonderful job of expressing the relief that someone must feel at realizing that what he’d thought was a personality ‘problem’ is in fact a syndrome beyond his control – and the unique position of being hyper-aware of, almost detached from, a physiological impulse that determines his behavior. As he puts it,

We’re not out of the socially crippling woods yet, and we probably never will be, at least when it comes to my fixations and repetitive behaviors…But over all I’m a good patient, and we’ve made steady progress. We’ve even reached a therapeutic milestone. When something is wrong, Kristen is able to whisper to me those three magic words: “Can we talk?” And instead of shutting down and freezing her out with silent brooding, I’m able to provide an equally magical response: “Yes.”

The essay is heartening and touching and tremendously hopeful. It’s a testament to the power of love and partnership and doubtless encouraging, too, to all those parents and people who worry Asperger’s can’t be addressed. The new awareness of the Autism spectrum and the prevalence of Asperger’s is a great thing, and pieces like this are an important part of raising awareness and, one hopes, aiding in destimgatizing the syndrome. I was glad to read it, just as I was glad to see an episode of Made in which a much-mocked boy explained his Asperger’s syndrome to his classmates. But it also made my heart sink a little. Because lately, people have been tossing this term around a lot, without knowing what it means. “He can’t help it, I think he’s on the Asperger’s spectrum,” remarked my boyfriend’s sister recently when he was demonstrating what was obviously just self-absorbed and assholeish behavior vis-a-vis a family dinner he didn’t wish to attend. I pointed out that, if this was true, his “Asperger’s” seemed limited to those situations when he didn’t want to do something or endear himself to anyone. My second-cousin recently diagnosed her philandering on-again off-again boyfriend as “having Asperger’s” to explain his appalling behavior, despite the fact that he didn’t seem to meet any of the clinical criteria (as long as we’re all amateur diagnosticians here.) And when, at a reunion event, a childhood friend’s boyfriend answered his phone ten times in the course of a heartfelt discussion of her dad’s illness, she turned to me confidentially and said, “I think he has Asperger’s.”

No, he doesn’t. Or, maybe he does, but that’s not really for us to say. Yes, this is a far more common syndrome than many people realize, and the spectrum is a wide one, leading to many undiagnosed cases. But it’s also an actual clinical syndrome, and cheapening the term does no one any favors. if this keeps up, US is going to be diagnosing celebrities any second. Maybe I’m extra-sensitive because I’ve watched several people in my family struggle with Asperger’s, and watched the toll it took on their lives and sense of self. Or because I used to work with a specialist who treated kids on the spectrum and learned a lot about the clinical definitions, challenges and realities of it. For one thing, plenty of folks with Asperger’s are considerate and treat their girlfriends well. For another, some people are assholes who were poorly brought up. As the author of this lovely and informative essay could tell you, Asperger’s is more than a word.

Somewhere Inside, A Path To Empathy [NY Times]

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