One of the things we’ll have to say goodbye to in 2013, if the American Psychiatric Association (APA) has its way, is Asperger’s Syndrome. In the forthcoming fifth edition of the APA’s reference work, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), Asperger’s has been ‘declassified’, that is, it’s no longer recognised as a discrete, stand-alone condition. This is a bit of a blow to me because I’ve been gradually working my way up to getting a professional diagnosis. Am I suffering from it or not? Now, it seems, I’ll never know.
For those unfamiliar with this disorder, it’s named after the Austrian paediatrician Hans Asperger who believed that certain high-functioning autistic children can be grouped together in a special category rather than simply labelled ‘autistic’. Among the characteristics exhibited by these children, according to Asperger, are poor social skills, lack of empathy and difficulty in picking up on more subtle forms of communication, such as body language and irony. Typically, a child with Asperger’s will interpret -everything that’s said to him in an over-literal way. For instance, if someone tells him not to lose his head over something he will become agitated because, after all, your head is attached to your body and the concept of momentarily mislaying it doesn’t make sense.
Asperger believed that early diagnoses of this condition was critical because the children suffering from it can go on to have successful, fulfilling lives, provided they’re given the right help. He referred to these children as ‘little professors’ on account of their ability to talk about particular subjects in great detail — bus timetables, for instance. One of his patients became a professor of astronomy, while another went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
I daresay it’s the link between Asperger’s Syndrome and genius levels of intelligence that led to my self-diagnosis. I fantasised about being a member of an elite human sub-species — like one of the X-Men. But there are also other, less flattering reasons for thinking I might be afflicted.
For instance, there’s my failure to grasp the most basic rules of etiquette, a common failing among Aspies. ‘My husband has so little understanding of how to behave in any situation, he makes Homer Simpson look like George Clooney,’ wrote Caroline in an article for the Times four years ago. She gave numerous examples of my behaviour, most of which had never struck me as abnormal.
Take the time we took the children for lunch at Kenwood, an over-priced café on Hampstead Heath. ‘Toby became quite agitated when our five-year-old daughter refused to eat a cheese sandwich that she’d insisted we buy for her,’ wrote Caroline. ‘I told him to ask the manager if he could return it but, after this was turned down, Toby began working his way across the restaurant trying to sell the sandwich at a 25p discount. There were no takers.’
I can honestly say, hand on heart, that I didn’t think there was anything odd about this at the time. But I’m sure Caroline’s right when she says it was ‘weird’ and ‘embarrassing’.
Perhaps it’s no bad thing that my condition is no longer considered a separate mental disorder. Over the years Caroline has taught me quite a lot about how to behave more normally. Had I been emboldened by a clinical diagnosis, I might have proved harder to train, citing my ‘disability’ as an excuse.
As a rule, I’m opposed to the way inappropriate forms of behaviour have been medicalised, seeing it as an unholy alliance between the psychiatric profession and the large pharmaceutical companies. It has led to a decline in personal responsibility, particularly in schools where more and more children are designated as having ‘special educational needs’ and given large doses of Ritalin.
Should the APA be congratulated for declassifying Asperger’s? Unfortunately, for every mental disorder it’s removed from the new edition of the DSM, it’s added five new ones. For instance, if your child has a temper tantrum because he’s not allowed to stay up to watch Doctor Who, he’s not behaving like a spoilt brat. Oh no. He’s suffering from ‘Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder’. Laziness is now classed as ‘Apathy Syndrome’, spending too long surfing the web is an example of ‘Internet Addiction Disorder’ and preferring one parent to another is ‘Parental Alienation Syndrome’. The list goes on.
How do I know all this? Because I’m obsessed with reference books. That’s another symptom of the condition that used to be Asperger’s.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 29 December 2012