Good terms but bad outcome?

There is an ongoing discussion about to obtain support without having a disorder. There are different terms for people with autism:

The official term is now autism spectrum disorder. People with autism tend to prefer the term autism spectrum condition sounding more value-free, without main focus on deficits. It’s also pointing towards the underlying genetic cause of autism. Everyone with autism develops different. There is no determined way for people with autism.

In a very similar way this is true for people with 47,XXY. The pure existence of an additional X doesn’t say much about his future. There are some numbers about increased probabilities of comorbid diseases or neurologic conditions but even if XXY is diagnosed before birth, nobody will know how the child will develop later. Therefore I prefer the term XXY condition for people with XXY, too.

Klinefelter syndrom is another issue, not interchangeable with XXY. Klinefelter syndrome might be called a disorder or disease because of the consequences of hypogonadism. The majority of men with Klinefelter syndrom (i.e., identifying as men) will probably suffer from enhanced breast development, small genitals as well as infertility. Some will also suffer from frequent diseases like osteoporosis or diabetes. However, it is not accurate to say all people with XXY suffer, like a mother said „my son isn’t only Klinefelter. He’s much more than it.“

So if we talk about XXY itself, we talk about XXY or XXY condition or people with XXY (condition). No offense so far.

If we talk about Klinefelter patients or people with Klinefelter syndrom, it’s used in a medical environment, talking about testosterone replacement therapy, physical traits and co-morbidities.

The main difficulty is, however, to obtain support if necessary. To get help from health care or other institutes, it’s necessary to have a diagnosis. A diagnose, however, is given in a purely negative context, i.e., something is wrong compared with the general population, like a disorder. Although we know that autism is just a different way of human being, not necessarily negative, the majority of autism experts as well as the people we usually deal with every day look at autism as a disorder. So it’s kind of a strong perception bias preventing us from using the terms we would like to use to look at us in a more value-free way, without prejudice. For support, we have to play out the card of suffering while to present ourselves in the best light we have to highlight the advantages of autistic thinking. We are forced to use a double-tracked way to succeed in everydaylife, at work, in school, etc.

Simon Baron-Cohen already wrote a long discussion about the term disability for autism in 2000:

He mentions this dichotomy in a subchapter voting for going on with the term disability to ensue special support.

Special funding does not automatically flow simply because one regards the child as ‚different‘. Given this economic reality, one should not remove the term ‚disability‘ from the description of AS/HFA without ensuring that extra provision would still be available even if the term ‚difference‘ was more appropriate. This is really an issue relating to social policy, health and education economics, and the legal system.

Moreover, his discussion is only addressed to people with Asperger’s syndrome or high functioning autism (which is another arguable term) whose assets are more obvious to the outside than in people with low functioning autism. Here is maybe the tricky part of this consideration. While the deficits of low functioning autism are quite obvious to necessitate special funding and support, the deficits of high functional autism are less obvious, and a significant number is late diagnosed.

So probably – at least at present – we depend on these negatively-loaden terms to explain why we need special support although we look like typical people, we are able to speak and we may have partners, children and even a full-time job. The more people with autism will give up hiding, spread their feelings and wishes with help of social networks and help reducing autism clichés and prejudice, the less we have to rely on labels we don’t like for us.

  • (sidenote in german: In Deutschland gibt es die autistische Störung, die Autismus-Spektrums-Störung und den Oberbegriff Krankheitsbild, manchmal wird auch von autistischer Erkrankung gesprochen. Eine treffende Entsprechung für condition ist mir noch nicht eingefallen, am ehesten noch Veranlagung, im Hinblick auf die (unbekannte) genetische Ursache. In jedem Fall sorgt alleine die Sprache im deutschsprachigen Raum für einen Schwerpunkt auf den Schwächen von Autismus und der Abweichung vom ‚Normalen‘.)
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What is mild autism?

Current autism diagnosis in Europe still refers to ICD-10 /DSM-IV where autism is divided into several categories like infantile autism (Kanner autism), Asperger’s syndrome, high-functional autism and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) which addresses to autism as social communication disorder without significant stereotypical behavior, restricted interests or rigid routines.

In the US, the DSM-V is already introduced merging all subtypes of autism into autism spectrum disorders, and determining severity or degree of support with additional numbers.

Most of the subtypes mentioned above are grown historically. Asperger’s syndrome has been called after the Austrian psychiatrist Hans Asperger while Kanner autism has been called after Leo Kanner. High-Functional Autism (HFA) is said to be classic autism from early childhood but with higher intellectual abilities (Tony Attwood doubts the differentation in HFA and Asperger’s syndrome is necessary). PDD-NOS covers the atypical autism when core autism symptomes are present but the development is atypical (which is often the case with 47,XXY-people).

In any case, there are a few key features of autism present in all subtypes:

  • enhanced sensitivity to sensory stimuli (sensory processing disorder, high emotional sensitivity, impaired gross and fine motorics) as „intense world syndrome“
  • different way of thinking, oftentimes pattern or visual thinking
  • difficulties to pick up social cues, prosody, facial expressions, reading between the lines

In some journals, self-support guides and parental reports, Asperger’s syndrome and PDD-NOS are considered as mild autism, attempting to euphemize the consequences of this diagnosis.

The perspective of mild autism may arise from the absence of

  • intellectual disability (i.e., IQ < 70)
  • rigid routines and rituals, stereotypes and repetitive behavior (making everydaylife and employment difficult to organize)
  • inability to speak
  • necessity to have full-time health care or special education/schools.

However, if you ask people with Asperger’s or PDD-NOS themselves, they will probably answer very different how severe they are affected. A study of Asperger’s and HFA asking them about their life quality has shown that the entire lifetime was characterized by ill-defined social development. Social difficulties are highly dominating throughout childhood and youth and will slightly decrease during adulthood. Growing up, the motivation to encounter social contacts increases but friendships are still relatively seldom reaching adulthood. The lack of partnership is specific for HFA/Asperger’s. With respect to therapy and support, comprehension, acceptance and emotional support are considered as most helpful for these persons.

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Even if someone with Asperger’s syndrome seems to function well in everydaylife, they might suffer from difficulties having and maintaining friendships, from continuous misunderstandings and erraneous picture of their personality. Someone who tends to talk in monologue might be perceived as arrogant and selfish while the opposite is actually the case. What you don’t realize, either, is the degree of sensory processing disorder. They may feel painful when background noise is given and are unable to have a conversation in a loud environment, which is a serious problem going to a busy party, into a loud restaurant or to a concert but also at work when many distractions are present.

You may not notice they have great difficulties with executive functions like planning, organisation, dealing with sudden changes, new things or simple housework stuff. They might have difficulties to accept a phone call or to call a stranger as it is often the case with public authorities. They would enjoy many opportunities but are unable to predict the unexpected to realize it.

As a summary, mild is a relative term because it is a judgement from outside.

  • Some severely autistic people want to be freed from their cage – they’re suffering from high amounts of incoming sensory stimuli.
  • Other severely affected autists may deal better with their situation and perhaps don’t consider themselves as severely affected.

The same holds true for so-called high-functional or Asperger’s or PDD-NOS autists:

  • Some of them might deal so well they are not even officially diagnosed. They have a job, partnership, kids and are satisfied with their life quality.
  • Some are diagnosed soon or later during their lifetime but are still able to manage well their situation.
  • And quite a lot of them are considered to have mild autism but suffer from lacking comprehension and acceptance.

If they tell about their suspicion or even official diagnosis, nonautistic people tend to imagine stereotypic pictures of classic autism and are unable to transfer this prejudice to their close friend or colleague or son/daughter. They may look at their „confession“ as an excuse instead of a reason for their odd behavior. They still believe it would be sufficient to „change the attitude“, „pull one’s socks up“ and „buck up“. To be seen as someone who pushs too hard is very disappointing and hurting for people with „mild“ autism. Life is difficult enough. Comprehension would relieve the lonely pain.

So if you talk or write about mild autism, especially about someone you know or want to describe, just ask them before if they agree with you.