Friday, February 10, 2017

Subjective Meanings of Aspergers: The Power of Self-Identification

I had a really interesting conversation with a friend recently about personality types, where throughout the course of it, I brought up how some of my character traits were significantly impacted by Aspergers. My friend, bless her soul, told me that Aspergers had nothing to do with it; that somehow, even without it, my core personality would still be intact. Aspergers, to my friend and countless others, was something separate from a person; a condition in need of dealing with rather than an integral part of who someone is. Long time readers will know where I stand on this particular question, but the whole thing did get me thinking; what exactly does the word Aspergers mean? Not in the sense of the clinical definition, but in a more subjective way. What does it, as a label, mean to those who have it, those who know of it, and those who study it?

First off, I should start with the elephant in the room - to those who study it, 'Aspergers' no longer exists. Starting with the release of the DSM-V in 2013, Aspergers was dropped as a diagnostic label, instead replaced with the wide-reaching category of 'Autism Spectrum Disorder.' While this represents a good move overall - recognizing Autism as a spectrum that impacts everyone differently is nothing but beneficial to all those living with the condition - it does bring up an interesting question; what about those of us who've lived with and identified as Aspergians since time immemorial? Are our experiences now illegitimate? The DSM would say no; in fact it goes to great lengths to tell us that anyone who previously had a diagnosis of Aspergers - whether historically or currently - should automatically be considered to have Autism Spectrum Disorder without significant language or cognitive delays. Even still, that feels like cold comfort for the fact that a personally significant label has had its legitimacy removed. It's not that I have anything against being referred to as Autistic, it just doesn't feel as comfortable for me to wear as a label as Aspergers does. Others are certainly free to disagree; its no different than preferring queer over gay, Indigenous over Aboriginal, and so on. People should be free to self identify with preferred terms, and I prefer Aspergers.

Aspergers also takes on a different meaning to members of mainstream society. For such people, it is often - as illustrated by the comments of both my friend and many others - considered to be something separate from a person. It's something to be grappled with, dueled with, and reckoned with daily. This isn't a surprising stand to take; after all, our model of medical science is inherently cure-based. We identify maladies, find solutions and eliminate the problem. This has worked wonders in the realm of physical health, but it falls short in certain areas of mental health. Aspergers (and by extension all Autism Spectrum Disorders, ADHD and some others) is after all a pervasive developmental condition, and this means it impacts every bit of who a person is. What I like, how I think, how I interact - all are affected by it and molded by it. When Aspergers is referred to as something separate from who a person is, it does an inherent disservice to the person themselves. It implies that we can cure Aspergers and find a complete person underneath, when in fact the reality would be more akin to gutting a person and rebuilding a more socially acceptable one.

If there's one thing I hope this blog post makes clear, it's how the term Aspergers can mean many things to many different people. For me, it represents a core characteristic; no more or less a part of me than my Italian heritage, brown hair, sexual orientation or anything else. It's not separate from my deep personal self but rather an integral part of it, with its tendrils in every aspect of who I am as a human. As much as we may all wish it wasn't so, labels are a key part of how we form our own identities, and this is why it is important to move away from our traditional view of mental health as a cure-based exercise. Diagnostic labels in psychology go far beyond being mere medical terms; they actually tend to become internalized as part of who a person is because they deal with such intimate and deep-seated aspects of a person's character. Therefore I'm going to go out on a limb and say that, while Aspergers may mean many things to many people, the most important opinions in this regard are those of Aspies themselves. We're the ones living with it and seeing the world through its lenses, so how we choose to self-identify should be the most important thing to consider. In light of this, I'm declaring that - DSM be damned - I will ALWAYS be an Aspie. I do not 'suffer' from it, I embrace it as part of me instead of something separate, and most importantly, I'm comfortable with it. Everyone's self-identifications should be accepted and respected equally as part of their journey - no exceptions.

I am an Aspie, and proud of it!

Yours in Diversity,

Adam Michael