The APA assumes a baseline “normal” then assigns the term “disorder” to those things that do not operate according to their agreed upon definitions and baseline. This change has had huge implications across our society, from insurance plan pricing and options to the educational system’s Individualized Educational Plans.
People regularly seek out a diagnosis of autism because the diagnosis, the paperwork, is necessary to access services, receive accommodations, and/or receive monetary support.
The problem with this mindset, the “trap” if you will – that of ordered vs disordered – can be seen in the revisions of the DSM as it relates to human sexuality. For example, the classification of gay, lesbian, and bisexual sexual orientations went from “paraphilia” in DSM I to “sexual orientation disturbance” in DSM II to “ego-dystonic homosexuality” in DSM III. The variance in human sexual identity and preference was dropped altogether from DSM-III-R and subsequent editions.
The medical community stopped looking at the variance of sexual identity and preference in terms of ordered vs disordered – with the disordered needing to be “cured.” The legacy of this viewpoint is slowly disappearing as more areas ban so-called “Gay Conversion Therapy.” Further to the point, the roots of racial classification can be in imperialist Europe’s attempts to justify it’s plunder of the world’s resources, which was cemented into the modern consciousness by the Eugenics movement over 100 years ago. This movement assumes a “normal” and an “optimal” human being. In their case, themselves being of European origin, the Eugenicists’ baseline was “Caucasian.” Every variance was considered a disordered version of the baseline. Yes, this sounds ridiculous, and indeed it is. Yet, we continue this classification today to achieve certain political and social ends.
Back to the human brain, autism, and diagnoses. What if autism and so-called autism spectrum disorders aren’t disorders at all but variances in the wiring diagram of the human system – in the same way that there are variations human skin color around the world?
With this in mind, what if the wiring difference commonly known as autism isn’t a mistake or a disorder? If it’s not a mistake, but an end result of tens of thousands of years of human evolution, what purpose does this wiring plan serve? What is the purpose of a relatively solitary, intuitive, empathic, and highly intelligent being? Recent research shows that what is now considered autism has been with us for thousands of years and has survived through the natural selection process. For example, researchers now believe that what we call autism may have had advantages in humans’ hunter-gatherer past.
For example, USC’s Jared Reser looked at how autism’s strengths may have played a role in evolution. Individuals “on the autism spectrum” would have had the mental tools to be self-sufficient foragers in environments marked by diminished social contact. The penchant for obsessive, repetitive activities would have been focused by hunger and thirst towards the learning and refinement of hunting and gathering skills. Their desire for peace and solitude may have pushed them beyond the boundaries of civilization – turning them into the first explorers.
Given this, is the autistic system actually disordered? No. I don’t believe it is.
In my research, I liken the autistic brain to an unregulated quantum field generator. What psychiatrists see as disorder is actually the result of an untrained person in control of this powerful tool as it processes time. There are two basic ways humans process time, chronologically and teleologically. The majority of humans process time chronologically – sequentially. The past is past. Here we are now. The future is ahead of us somewhere. Not so with the autistic brain.
The autistic brain processes time teleologically. Past, present, and future are blended together with purpose and plan to form a multi-dimensional mental image of the person’s goals, or Quality World Picture.
Anxiety and depression, for example, can result when an untrained person attempts to manage their personal quantum field generator – essentially attempting to choose the “correct” path among multiple possible outcomes (or a cascading probability calculation), with the operator unanchored by time. Seeing “the problem” in this way, one can easily explain why modern psychiatry has no answers in “treating” autism. They don’t understand how the autistic brain works, so they label it disordered, then attempt to dull it through powerful narcotics so that it can fit in with the majority of the population. Their “solution” is completely unsustainable, not to mention unethical.
Back to the idea of diagnosis as a trap; why a diagnosis is necessary in many circumstances, and why the diagnosis mindset actually prevents sustainable solutions.
In the majority of the western world, a formal diagnosis is necessary to receive accommodations in school or the workplace. Laws are in place to address obvious needs, like ramps to accommodate mobility issues and braille signage to accommodate the blind. But autism isn’t always obvious. Sensory issues, for example, present themselves differently across the autistic population, preventing a standard set of accommodations that can be codified into law.
In my doctoral dissertation, I explored the problem of the abnormally high attrition rates of autistic college students. The starting point of my analysis was the fact that less than 60% of autistic students survive even the first semester of college, with less than 2 in 10 remaining in school through graduation. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is American legislation that guarantees certain rights to people with disabilities. It was one of the first U.S. federal civil rights laws offering protection for people with disabilities. But, colleges have largely exempted themselves from accommodating autistic people for a variety of reasons.
Although college students with disabilities are protected from discrimination under Section 504, some professors take a dim view of students who request accommodations. I’ve seen this myself, even with a diagnoses and letters from my doctors outlining how the various aspects of how I experience autism impact my ability to engage with school and learn alongside my peers. College-bound students must learn self-advocacy skills – how to present information about their disability and accommodations so professors will want to help. The non-verbal population are still figuring this out. But, if college students can master self-advocacy skills, they are more likely to make a successful transition from high school to college and remain there through graduation. But, that’s only one domain of the issue.
Consider also that students often choose a college major around their particular interests. For the autistic person, they might be an expert in their favorite subject, having read and studied it from every angle prior to arriving at college. Then, that expert – with all of the requisite passion but little of the social tact – meets a completely unprepared professor. Professors are not used to having students in their classes who are more knowledgeable than they, especially undergraduates. The reactions of staff to such situations range from indifference to outright hostility and bullying of the students.
Feelings of powerlessness can also occur when the student is not allowed flexibility to complete assignments when there is a dispute over facts or procedures with the instructor, or when communication issues complicate student / teacher / peer interactions. The current situation is hardly optimal, and is nothing that can be addressed with a formal diagnosis. The solution in this case is a modification of the staff’s behavior and attitudes towards the learning environment, turning the classroom interaction from monolog to a more collaborative dialog – something they should be doing anyway.