Stop conflating autism with Asperger's Syndrome and pathologizing brilliance!

Why is it that people are so quick to latch on to the rare person with Asperger’s Syndrome(AS), conflate AS with autism, add amazing brilliance and then manufacture false hope for parents of children with autism? Is it in our DNA to provide hope for another’s challenge or misfortune? Perhaps, but it is not helpful. In fact, it is very misleading... I’m referring to the recent articles
Amazing Individuals With Autism Provide Hope and the Top 10 People With Autism Known Today list. I was going to ignore the list, but it keeps on propagating through the Internet, inadvertently preying on the hopes of parents of children with autism, so I am compelled to weigh in...

There are two burning issues that must be addressed:

1) Although Asperger’s Syndrome is technically on the ASD spectrum, we really must separate the two; otherwise, the world will continue to conflate autism with Asperger’s Syndrome and the lies will continue. Repeat after me: Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome are different (Journalists: Please repeat that 10 times!!!). The vast majority of these top ten “autistic” people today are
highly eloquent: ergo, they do NOT have autism. *

2) Two on the “top 10” list are amazingly talented: one is a jazz prodigy, & the other is a mathematician. Most of the other people are also exceptional in their abilities. I take nothing away from these interesting people; however, their exceptionalism must be attributed to them, and not to autism (or Asperger’s Syndrome). In fact, the entire concept of savantism is very misleading. Allow me to explain how “savantism” occurs in people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (and I am happy to debate any leading “savant” expert on the planet in regards to this issue)!

First, a person must have
talent. In the same way as a typically developing person is a talented musician, the person with ASD must have talent. Next, the person on the ASD spectrum must be very focused and practice for hours on end. A typically developing person may practice very hard; however, that person most likely has a life that is much less focussed and, therefore, finds it very difficult to put in the hours necessary to become truly exceptional. Some musicians do put in the hours and find that: talent + hard work = success. Just ask musicians who are at the top of their game to estimate the number of hours they practiced.

Now let’s talk about the talented individuals with autism. They are very focussed as well. Sometimes these people spend every waking hour practicing their talent. We call this practicing behavior “perseveration” or “obsessive” because the person has an ASD. We call the same behavior “hard work” when the person does not! It is correct that many people with autism engage in perseverative behavior, or suffer as well from obsessive compulsive tendencies or a disorder. However, in order to exploit that talent, practicing is a prerequisite.

Approximately 20 years ago, I viewed a film created by a so-called world famous “savant expert” who showed a man engaging in a behavior called “calendaring” whereby he could tell you the day of the week if you gave him any date, even a century ago. For example, if you said August 5, 1853, he would say, that’s a Tuesday. Then the “savant expert” asked him: “what is 2 + 2”? He couldn’t answer “4”. She then proceeded to explain that he was an “idiot” savant (I know, I know, but that’s what they called them). She explained that these idiot savants have islands of brilliance, but are otherwise intellectually impaired (I won’t use the actual term due to its hurtful nature). What she did not understand is that he had figured out a very complex, three dimensional, mathematical system to answer these questions; however, due to his age, and the state of the science at the time, he had never been given the opportunity to learn basic language, never mind what 2 + 2 means! So... I have one question:
Who’s was the idiot!

Although the state of the science in autism treatment has advanced considerably, this concept of “savant” lives on, and experts make their livings studying these savants because it is so dog-gone fascinating. Unfortunately, by minimizing the talent of the person due to a diagnosis of autism or Asperger’s Syndrome, we actually do them a serious disservice, and build up false hope for the parent of a newly diagnosed child! In addition, we stigmatize the person on the ASD spectrum because generally their talent is explained away as a “parlor trick” instead of a talent that could actually make them a living!!!

A word of advice to new parents from a parent who has already walked down this road: If your child is one of the
10% of children with autism that has a clearly identifiable talent, work on their skills in this area. Their abilities may become useful for 1) mainstreaming in the educational system and 2) placing them in the job market.

* Note: If a person is on the Autism Spectrum, afflicted with Asperger’s syndrome, that in no way means they should be denied access to treatment to improve their condition (as some insurance companies have attempted to do). In fact, individualized treatment for those with Asperger’s syndrome is crucial to their future independence and social competence. This is a very important topic, but for another day...