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by Steve Emfield

Asperger’s Syndrome is a condition of the brain and nerves, usually in place by birth, that affects how a person sees the world, processes information, and interacts with other people. Because those with AS act differently and since society has mechanisms for maintaining social norms, those with Aspergers are misunderstood, labeled, and rejected by society. If society would instead embrace our different brain types and variety of nervous systems, both those with AS and society at-large would benefit. In fact, Thom Hartmann points out that it is precisely those who are wired differently that have saved some civilizations in the past and it is those same types who will save our own civilization in the future – if we strive to accept them and understand what they see.

Myths of Science. Science is the great purveyor of truth. It is science that has brought us machines, electronics, and modern medicine. However, in every era, science proclaims its theories as infallible. At one point scientists declared the earth the center of our solar system, encouraged the bleeding of evil spirits from George Washington, dropped a planet from the official list, and every decade or so reclassified human disabilities. If science was always accurate and less dogmatic, it would not change its positions under duress.

Myths of Culture. Like science, the aggregate of humanity that we call civilization or society imposes its expectations on us in the form of culture. Like science, society measures what appears to be the average in all areas and declares it to be desirable. Unfortunately, the norm for a small group is not normal for the world. What is average today may merely be a fad gone tomorrow. Science and society have promoted oft-repeated myths about autism and Asperger’s syndrome to the point that these myths have become broadly accepted. The following is a small sample.

Myth 1: Autism and Aspergers are two names for the same thing.

Myth 2: We do not know what causes autism.

Myth 3: Autism and Aspergers can and should be cured.

Myth 4: Those with autism and Aspergers have normal nerves.

Myth 5: Autism is five disorders.

Myth 6: It is unclear if those with autism or Aspergers are biologically different.

Myth 7: Autism and Aspergers occur during early childhood.

Myth 8: Those “on the spectrum” are inferior and defective human beings.

Myth 9: Those who have not been diagnosed with autism do not have it.

The truths about each of these myths have been clearly established, but are not as popularly and widely spread as are the myths. It has, therefore, become my mission in life to spread the truth, first among those who now care about these conditions, and finally to society and the scientific community.

Fact 1: Autism and Aspergers are not two names for the same thing. There are many forms of autism and many forms of Aspergers. Gene mapping, fMRI scans, and other new technologies are pointing this out. However, the current definitions for these “disorders,” which I call neurological variances, are simply wrong. They are not founded on hard genetic, anatomical, physiological traits, but rather on the soft science of behavior, known as psychology. The hard sciences and soft sciences now find themselves in contradiction. Hard science argues for an increased number of categories while the soft sciences are trying to consolidate labels for clinical convenience and practicality.

Fact 2: We do know what causes autism. Genes cause it. A certain combination of gene “codes” being switched on or off create most cases of autism and Aspergers by the seventh week of pregnancy or earlier. Other combinations lead to other forms of autism or Aspergers. Autism is not really a spectrum disorder; it is a combination of many closely related gene codes that manifest as different types of autism, Aspergers, PDD, Retts, AD(H)D, epilepsy, and other conditions.

Fact 3: Autism and Aspergers cannot and should not be cured. First of all, short of a complete brain transplant and completely rewiring all the nerves in the body, there is no true “cure” for these conditions. They are not cancers needing to be cured. They are simply different ways that we are wired before birth, like AC (power cord) versus DC (battery) power, or parallel-wired Christmas lights versus series-wired lights. Each has its own function; none are completely better or worse than the other. Our lives are better because we have all those options. Therefore, it is both impossible and undesirable to cure autism and Aspergers. Instead, we should look for ways to better understand those with it and how to assimilate them naturally into our neurotypical society.

Fact 4: Those with autism and Aspergers have unusual nerves. Both those with autism and those with Aspergers have nerves that look different than the average person. In some parts of the brain, these nerves are thinner and more tightly packed together. In Aspergers, they form a distinctive web or grid of nerves that is highly efficient for concentrating on one task or subject for a prolonged period of time. However, for both autism and Aspergers, the large number of branches required for processing multiple social communication skills is absent. Those on the spectrum have brains that grow faster than typical and then stop growing sooner than most. Also, different parts of the brain are larger or smaller than average, because their genetic blueprints have told their brains to grow parts differently than the average person. Those with autism and Aspergers are different from average people anatomically, neurologically, genetically, and physiologically. With new technologies, we can see the differences.

Fact 5: Autism is more than five disorders. What a layperson calls autism is called PDD by psychologists. The DSM-IV, published by the American Psychological Association, lists only five disorders under that “umbrella” heading, including Aspergers and (classic) autism. It is past time to update this system of classification and definitions to reflect modern science. While it is easier and more convenient to combine and eliminate labels from the Diagnostic Manuel, it should actually be expanded into more forms of autism, Aspergers, and related neurological variances. Again, these are not accurately called “disorders” or “disabilities,” although that is how most people and professionals refer to them. These terms need to go the way of “handicapped” and “retarded” – into the trashcan.

Fact 6: It is clear that those with autism and those with Aspergers are biologically different than average people. Those with autism and Aspergers are different from average people anatomically, neurologically, genetically, and physiologically. Those with Aspergers are generally hypercompliant. That is to say that they try very hard to do what they are told to do. That is part of their wiring. Teaching them the same way as other students and telling them to “try harder” is futile and ludicrous.

Fact 7: Autism and Aspergers occur in the womb. While adult-onset spectrum disorders have not been ruled out, all or nearly all of those with autism and Aspergers were born that way. Because most children are not diagnosed until age three, society and professionals often assume that age three is the time that someone “gets” autism. Prenatal and childhood environmental factors, including toxins, play a role in altering the off-on status of some genes required to produce a specific form of PDD. However, if the genes were programmed to develop a typical brain during the nine months in the womb, there are no known triggers for causing autism or Asperger’s after birth.

Fact 8: Those “on the spectrum” are not inferior or defective human beings. Society tends to embrace its norm-of-the-moment, and tolerates clear physical disabilities (blindness, deafness, those in wheelchairs) with great pride. However, those with “invisible disabilities” are often subject to ridicule, exclusion, neglect, and abuse. Many students with intellectual disability (formerly called mental retardation) are some of the most accepting and loving individuals I have encountered as a group. Those with autism and Aspergers are often gifted with ability to see the world in novel and creative ways. That is an essential, if not superior, aspect of their neurology. They, too, are human.

Fact 9: Those who have not been diagnosed with autism or Aspergers may still have it. Many of us walking around now as parents and grandparents have had all the symptoms of spectrum neurology all our lives. When we were children, there were no definitions in the dictionary for autism or Aspergers syndrome. Adults and other children used other names to describe us – geek, nerd, retard, and others that are not worth publishing. Autism (PDD) did not just spring on scene in the last two decades after six thousand years of recorded human history. It has always been with us to some degree. Those of us who have it as adults can advocate for those who are in the upcoming generations with it, so that they can contribute in better ways to society than we were able to – both for their sake, and for ours. Research shows that two-thirds of those living in the USA will admit to having either a disability or mental disorder at some time in their lives. The other third are probably in denial, and crazy. I have yet to meet the “normal” person, and that’s a good thing.

About the Author.

Steve Emfield is an Asperger researcher, disability specialist, and author. He has three sons with diagnoses of neurological conditions. He was diagnosed himself by a psychologist as having Asperger’s syndrome late in life. Having spent decades working with students with disabilities and at-risk behaviors, he as the unique perspective of personal, family, and professional insight into spectrum disorders. Steve Emfield graduated from Cal State LA in 2005 with a master’s degree in Special Education and Transition Services, Summa Cum Laude.

About the Material.

This article is modified from the 2011 book GEEK SYNDROMES: Causes, Cures and Maps of Autism and other related neurological variances; The 26 Myths and 26 Facts of Autism, available at http://site.steveemfield.com, at Amazon.com, and Kindle.

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4 Responses to “Nine Myths about Aspergers”

  1. Your myth number 1 is wrong. Aspergers IS part of the autism spectrum.They have different levels of functionality but they are all part and parcel of the autism spectrum. It is even acknowledged as such in the new DSM. To write that they are different perpetuates the ability of school districts of denying services to children diagnosed with aspergers. You need to be very careful what you write. You may have just harmed an untold number of children who are in desperate need of services and supports.

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  2. Thank you for your response. It raises some worthwhile points to consider and respond to. Also, I generally agree with much of what you have said.

    First. Are there 435 or 535 members of Congress? Some argue 435. Others argue 535. Both are wrong by each other’s definition.

    Part of the problem here is that under DSM-IV, classic autism is simply referred to as autism, while the umbrella term PDD is considered autism by most of the general public and under previous classifications. Now, there seems to be a movement in DSM-V to eliminate those with Aspergers from the entire classification. This may make it harder for those already diagnosed with Aspergers to claim services, since it could be argued that their previous diagnosis is no longer recognized.

    There are distinctions between Aspergers and classic autism, just as there are distinctions between LFASG with ID and HFASD.

    I am not saying that a senator is not part of the Congress. I am saying that a senator is not a congressman, or member of the House of Representatives.

    Unfortunately, in government we can resort to alternative terms, while spectrum disorders are harder to express with such clarity. I never said that Aspergers is not part of PDD. Under DSM-4, both Aspergers and autism are listed side-by-side as subtypes of PDD. This is the model that I am referring to. If we disagree with this model, we disagree with DSM-4. Frankly, I think that this model should be debated, since it is founded on clinical convenience and behavioral distinctions rather than underlying biology.

    Second. I am sensitive to the fact that a change in the DSM that would list Aspergers outside the labels of either or both autism or PDD may place it outside the listed items in IDEIA recognized as educational disabilities. However, this should not preclude services.

    Even a diagnosis of autism does not automatically qualify for services. There also has to be a recognition that the diagnosis impedes learning or access to the curriculum.

    Conversely, anyone without any diagnosis of any type of spectrum disorder can be qualified for services, if the IEP team feels that a clear need exists, OHI or other routes of qualification are available. 504 options are also available. Frankly, agreement on services are more important than labels or routes to qualify for them. Recent revisions in IDEIA invest greater power in the IEP team to make those determinations. For example, IQ tests and a two-grade deficit are no longer the almost universal standard for qualifying under SLD.

    Dialogue is usually healthy because it ferrets out hidden problems, calls for them to be addressed, and generates solutions.

    It would be interesting to know if this article benefits or harms anyone applying for services. Either way, I would like to know of such specific cases, so that these ambiguous terms can be clarified to benefit all with a clearer understanding.

    While psychology is pushing for less labels, neuroscience is identifying multiple forms of autism, Aspergers, and ADD. Should we eliminate these three labels and simple call all these “spectrum disorders.” Then, technically none would qualify for services under the autism label anymore. Wouldn’t it be better to come up with more specific labels instead. Autism1, Aspergers2 subform of autism, or similar labels would recognize the so-called spectrum of manifestations, still meet the autism umbrella (not classic autism) label, and be more accurate representations of anatomical and neurological reality.

    Advocating for accuracy in diagnostic labels is worthwhile. Advocating for qualification for helpful educational support services is also worthwhile. Let us continue to do both.

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  3. Science does NOT declare its truths infallible! It declares them testable. It might be said that the scientific method that is thought to be infallible. Any one can further test any scientific assertion/theory/truth, and find evidence that either supports or refutes the existing scientific theory. That evidence is then considered by the scientific community (anybody who is interested), and the theory revised if necessary.

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  4. I have a Facebook page about Asperger’s called Elephant’s Kitchen – An Aspergirl’s Study in Difference (named for a short story I published on Nook and Kindle).

    On it, I have been posting helpful links, state by state. Soon I will move on to doing so nation by nation.

    I posted this article with the following comment:

    “This was a great article to find. I especially loved seeing Myth 3, which was that autism and Asperger’s can and should be cured. GREAT debunking article!”

    So, from one Aspie to another, thank you very much!

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