Is Aspergers really a "disorder" -- or just a different cognitive style?

Some researchers have argued that Aspergers can be viewed as a different cognitive style, not a disorder or a disability, and that it should be removed from the standard Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (much as homosexuality was removed).

Why? The debate seems to revolve around the concept of "central coherence."

“Central coherence” (CC) is receiving increased attention across a variety of clinical neuroscience disorders. Essentially, CC describes a style of thinking on a continuum. On one end of the continuum, you have people who tend to think globally or use a gestalt perspective (i.e., the big picture is seen rather than paying attention to details). The other end of continuum includes people who are detail-oriented (i.e., they focus on details). Being on either extreme of the continuum can produce problems. Very high CC can lead to problems with missing important details that need attention or action. Those with very low or weak CC can be detail-bound, losing sight of important global interpretations of the situation or environment.

Aspies appear to have low CC and are overly-focused on details to the expense of a global perspective. This could explain typical Aspergers behaviors (e.g., valuing sameness, attending to parts of objects, persistence in behaviors related to details, etc.). With the concept of central coherence in mind, having a propensity for details suggests a “cognitive style” located on – or near – one end of a continuum, not a “disorder” per say.

Aspies have advocated a shift in perception of Aspergers as a complex syndrome  (i.e., a characteristic combination of opinions, emotions, or behavior) rather than a disease that must be cured. Proponents of this view (a) reject the notion that there is an "ideal" brain configuration and that any deviation from the norm is pathological, and (b) promote tolerance for what they call neuro-diversity. These views are the basis for the autistic rights and autistic pride movements.

The Internet has allowed Aspies to communicate and celebrate diversity with each other in a way that was not previously possible (due to their rarity and geographic dispersal). A subculture of people with Aspergers has indeed formed. For example, Internet sites like www.AspergersTeenChat.com have made it easier for Aspie teens to connect.

There is a contrast between the attitudes of grown-ups with self-identified Aspergers (who typically do not want to be "fixed" and are proud of their identity) and mothers/fathers of Aspergers kids, who typically seek assistance and a "cure" for their youngster.

Baron-Cohen wrote of those with Aspergers, "In the social world there is no great benefit to a precise eye for detail, but in the worlds of math, computing, cataloguing, music, linguistics, engineering, and science, such an eye for detail can lead to success rather than failure." Also, Baron-Cohen cited two reasons why it might still be useful to consider Aspergers a disability: (1) to ensure provision for legally required special support, and (2) to recognize emotional difficulties from reduced empathy.

It has been argued that the genes for Aspergers combination of abilities have operated throughout recent human evolution and have made remarkable contributions to human history. Here are just a few of the “abilities” associated with the Aspergers condition (i.e., a low central coherence cognitive style):
  1. Attention to detail – sometimes with painstaking perfection
  2. Higher IQ – some experts say that those with Aspergers often have a higher than average general IQ
  3. Focus and diligence – the Aspie’s ability to focus on tasks for a long period of time without needing supervision or incentive
  4. Higher fluid intelligence – scientists in Japan discovered that Aspergers kids have a higher “fluid intelligence” (i.e., the ability to (a) find meaning in confusion and solve new problems, and (b) draw inferences and understand the relationships of various concepts, independent of acquired knowledge) than non-autistic kids
  5. Honesty – the value of being able to say “the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes”
  6. Independent, unique thinking – people with Aspergers tend to spend a lot of time alone and will likely have developed their own unique thoughts as opposed to a ‘herd’ mentality
  7. Internal motivation – as opposed to being motivated by praise, money, bills or acceptance – which ensures a job done with conscience, with personal pride
  8. Logic over emotion – although people with Aspergers are very emotional at times, they spend so much time ‘computing’ in our minds that they get quite good at it –and they can be very logical in their approach to problem-solving
  9. Visual, three-dimensional thinking – some with Aspergers are very visual in their thought processes, which lends itself to countless useful and creative applications

More resources for parents of children and teens with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's:

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Guide for Parents Who Want to Promote Self-Reliance

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

==> Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism: Comprehensive Handbook

==> Unraveling The Mystery Behind Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Audio Book

==> Highly Effective Research-Based Parenting Strategies for Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism


•    Anonymous said... I am reading Tony Attwoods book and am waiting for the rest. It is very upsetting thinking about all the time I have lost and realising I must have this problem and no on noticed or did anything. I had the wrong type of counselling from someone who didn't know about AS. Isn't that really damaging ? SHe didn't get me at all. I felt I couldn't say what I wanted to. I felt inhibited and silly. I was worried about the reaction I would get. This is no good if you are having counselling. I read his book and see loads of parallels in my own past. The past which have tried to forget because it is painful and full of conflict. What I need is to compare real life scenarios with other people's experiences. That would really help. It would repair the past and improve my self-esteem. I would see myself in a new light. That's why I am hoping I can put stuff on here and you lot will say yes I did that I know what you mean, ~I am the same.
•    Anonymous said... We always explain it as my husband's brain is wired differently, or he runs a different Operating System - he's running on Linux while us neuro-typicals are running on Windows. It's not just thinking differently; there's more to it than that. But it does have to do with the brain.
•    Anonymous said... I suspect that there is more to all of the Asperger's/Autism/HFA connections than have currently been discovered by science. Generally speaking, I think Asperger's is being more frequently diagnosed because it is no longer culturally acceptable to be emotionally detached. When I read the descriptions of Asperger's symtoms, primarily the stoic expressions, lack of empathy, and perfectionism, I can list off about 50 people of older generations that I've known that would meet those requirements for diagnosis, but would have been considered completely normal until about 30 years ago. In addition, there is still a cultural stigma against any form of mental disability, a stigma that was worse in the past. I think it is entirely possible that we are seeing an increase in diagnosis because more people are seeking diagnosis, not necessarily because there is an increase in the condtion. As far as if HFA and Asperger's is a disbabilty or differenct cognitive style, I tend to think that in some ways it doesn't make a difference. Generally speaking, our society is based around certain rules of conduct and behavior, that have been established by the majority. It isn't good or bad, it just is. That doesn't mean that aspies can't participate, but we do have to understand that we are on the outside adapting to another culture. I tend to think of it as if I moved to a foreign country. I can't expect everyone to change their language and culture to match mine, I have to learn to mesh with theirs. I think it is important to accept both sides, that it is a different way of thinking, but it is also a SOCIAL diability that affects communication, and its the communication side of things that has to be worked on in order to mesh with society.
•    Anonymous said... From my experience (and just my opinion), it is a different cognitive style!

Please post your comment below…


Kim Morgan said...

Is this discussion based on a scientific journal entry or new research? This is a fascinating discussion. I shared it on my Facebook wall. Thanks!

Shelley said...

Very interesting. I can see both sides of the "arguement".
I dont want my child to be "fixed/cured"...I just want to learn how to help her succeed in this world that seems so different than she is.

I think most days I would tend to agree with it just being a different cognitive styke rather than a "disorder"...other days, not so much. ;)

Anonymous said...

Janet Fuqua Williams
I've recently asked myself this question. Why can't kids just be allowed to be different rather than be considered to have a disorder. On the other hand, it seems we need this "disorder" label in order to be accepted as different in school, to not have to fit into the perfect mold. Honestly, I don't see my extremely intelligent child as one with a disorder - just someone who needs a different learning environment (which is not available here without homeschooling or paying a fortune). He will be able to do things that others can't because of his different way of thinking and processing. If this label is what it takes to help my child get the best education possible in our school district, then I hope it remains as a disorder or disability, even though I'm not overly thrilled with the negative connotation.
20 hours ago · Like · 4 people
Jennifer Downing Burleigh As many kids need this "label" to recieve therapies that would not otherwise be covered by insurance, I hope it remains classified as a disorder. Some kids on the spectrum do have an advantage over their peers in some ways, but usually have other disadvantages that require help and specific therapies to cope with. Many familes would suffer a great deal if it is removed.
20 hours ago · Like · 4 people
Erica Jean Rutherford
This is how I see it -- I get that it could just be a different cognitive style. I have told my husband that a hundred times when he was first having issues with the possibility of his own diagnosis. BUT -- the labels, in some cases, are helpful. Someone told me once to think about labels like you would on a bunch of canned goods. You wouldn't want a bunch of aluminum cans in your pantry without labels on them... some are good for this, some are good for that, etc, but without the information -- you can't possibly choose the best recipe for the can.

Having Asperger's as a diagnosable "disorder" or whatnot, gives us the chance to explain to other family members that no, beating my child would not make him behave differently. It gives us the chance to say, "please be careful what you say to him, he takes everything extremely literally." It gives us the chance to work with schools to ensure that his/her "cognitive style" is attended to with coursework and the school environment. It gives us the power to take a deep breath during a 45+ minute meltdown and remind ourselves that we did not raise a brat, that his/her thinking is truly unique.

I don't mind the fact that it will, soon, be clumped in together with autism and pdd-nos, but I sure as heck don't want it taken out of the DSM altogether.

Of course, after the clumping, it won't matter one way or another unless they plan on taking ALL autism spectrum disorders out of the DSM, which I don't see happening.

But even with the lower functioning kids -- they're highly intelligent, they just have a lot of other things going on inside of their minds that they can't quite turn off in order to focus on what neurotypicals see as smart... they can't communicate, so they must be dumb... but in reality, they're just as brilliant as those on the higher-functioning end. The difference is just that there are so many more sensory integration issues with the low-functioning kids that they can't focus on just one aspect of their environment to give themselves the opportunity for speech, among other things.
17 hours ago · Like

Anonymous said...

Parenting Aspergers Children - Support Group Interesting debate! Very reminiscent of the "buzz" around homosexuality several decades ago (e.g., "it's a choice" ..."no, it's biological" ..."it's a sin" ..."no, it's just a different life style" ...and so on. Time will tell.
7 minutes ago · Like
Parenting Aspergers Children - Support Group I'm making the comparison - not because there is any link between Aspergers and homosexuality - but because homosexuality used to be a "disorder" - and now it's not.
4 minutes ago · Like

StrangerInGodzone said...

Interesting - as an adult on the spectrum, i would say mostly, it feels like a different cognitive style, but when it comes to being able to function in the 'NT' world, it becomes a 'disorder', a 'dis-ability', that hampers me in getting along with others, working well with them in a job situation, etc.
It's also a pity that there has to be a choice made, in order for kids to receive funding for help in school, etc. If only, somehow, there could be funding for 'different cognitive styles' (of which of course Aspergers is not the only one)!
And re 'cured', or 'fixed', it has to be asked, is it really a 'cure' people want, or is it 'healing'? There is a difference, i wrote a piece on my blog about it, here - http://strangeringodzone.blogspot.com/2011/07/cure-vs-healing.html

rebecca said...

Thank you very much for your articles. They have helped me a lot! I think Aspergers should be more or equally addressed as Autism. I am still curious to the "cause" to this mysterious wiring to their awesome minds. :) Thank once again :)Rebecca Shepherd

Unknown said...

This is one of the problems I have with my son amongst adults. Many comments I get is that well he is just a boy he doesn't have Aspergers you shouldn't lable him. All I want is to find a way to help him understand. He is committing social sucided and it's very frustrating for both. Aspergers is a disability and is a challenge for the whole family!

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