More labels not helping: a man’s autism vanishes

February 8, 2012 by Joshua
in Blog, Nature

If you look for problems you’ll find them. And you’ll fill your life with problems.

But if you look for solutions you’ll find them too, and you’ll fill your life with solutions. You’ll find your problems go away or don’t show up at all.

A day after posting on labels not helping with introversion and extraversion came this op-ed piece on a guy whom doctors diagnosed with autism, supposedly “a continuous and lifelong disorder,” but his symptoms vanished.

I exhibited a “qualified impairment in social interaction,” specifically “failure to develop peer relationships appropriate to developmental level” (I had few friends) and a “lack of spontaneous seeking to share enjoyment, interests, or achievements with other people” (I spent a lot of time by myself in my room reading novels and listening to music, and when I did hang out with other kids I often tried to speak like an E. M. Forster narrator, annoying them). I exhibited an “encompassing preoccupation with one or more stereotyped and restricted patterns of interest that is abnormal either in intensity or focus” (I memorized poems and spent a lot of time playing the guitar and writing terrible poems and novels).

The general idea with a psychological diagnosis is that it applies when the tendencies involved inhibit a person’s ability to experience a happy, normal life. And in my case, the tendencies seemed to do just that. My high school G.P.A. would have been higher if I had been less intensely focused on books and music. If I had been well-rounded enough to attain basic competence at a few sports, I wouldn’t have provoked rage and contempt in other kids during gym and recess.

The thing is, after college I moved to New York City and became a writer and met some people who shared my obsessions, and I ditched the Forsterian narrator thing, and then I wasn’t that awkward or isolated anymore. According to the diagnostic manual, Asperger syndrome is “a continuous and lifelong disorder,” but my symptoms had vanished.

He writes of how this change happened. His evolution seemed consistent with my observation that people can change many characteristics that people consider permanent.

Am I saying Asperger’s doesn’t exist? No. I don’t know enough to say.

I’m saying some people labeled with some problems can change enough that the label no longer applies. Maybe not all, but more than zero.

I’m saying labels imply an inability to change and create resistance. The labels include autism, introversion, extraversion, ADD, ADHD, INTJ, ENTP, shy, borderline personality, obsessive compulsive, and so on.

I’m saying people respond to incentives and if you change their incentives — their environments — they will change their behavior. Help them change their beliefs and the changes will increase. After enough time, the new behavior and beliefs will habitualize and they will no longer meet the label’s description.

How much, I don’t know and it will depend on the person. Maybe some or even most can’t change at all. But I doubt the labels will help anyone.

He continued

I wonder: If I had been born five years later and given the diagnosis at the more impressionable age of 12, what would have happened? I might never have tried to write about social interaction, having been told that I was hard-wired to find social interaction baffling.

If someone gave you a label and you like it, enjoy your life. Only you know what makes you happy. But if they labeled you and you don’t like it, you don’t have to let their description tie you down.

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