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The Risks Associated with an “Asperger’s” Label

Many adults who have struggled for many years feel a sense of relief when they finally get a formal “diagnosis.” They may say something like, “It was such a weight off my shoulders to finally understand why I behaved the way he did. I thought it was a personality flaw, but now I see it was the disorder instead.”

Those who have had emotional problems and/or social difficulties since childhood find it comforting to one day discover, “Oh, I have Asperger’s! No wonder I haven’t been able to hold a job or find a girlfriend/boyfriend.”

Unfortunately (or fortunately, as the case may be), finding comfort in having a “disorder” comes with a price – a much larger price than most realize they have paid. For example:

1. Not all undesirable diagnostic traits can be helped with therapy.

There are some difficult cognitive and behavioral characteristics associated with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) that come with the “autism-package” (e.g., insistence on routine, narrow range of interest, etc.). However, some “problems” associated with AS/HFA cannot be helped with therapy (e.g., social skills training for those who lack such skills, Cognitive-Behavior Therapy for those who suffer with anxiety, etc.). 

So, when you discover that you have this disorder, do not fall into the trap of saying something such as, “Well, now that I know what I’m dealing with, I can go get the proper therapy to fix it.” However, the good news is that many troublesome traits (e.g., meltdowns, anger control issues, depression, etc.) can indeed be ameliorated.

2. A self-fulfilling prophecy may manifest itself – either positively or negatively – when it comes to labels.

When you “buy in” to a label (e.g., AS or HFA), you begin to view yourself in a distinct light. You “reframe” your character such that your “diagnosis” becomes a part of who you are. The reframe, in and of itself, doesn’t come with any major complications. However, with the new reframe comes a unique way of “thinking” about yourself and others. This mental shift results in a unique way of “feeling” about yourself and others, which in turn results in a unique way of “behaving” and conducting your life. In other words, you begin to “live up to” your diagnosis, displaying more and more of the traits that are in alignment with the diagnostic criteria of your “disorder.” This is a self-fulfilling prophecy working toward “dis-ability” rather than ability.

Conversely, many adults on the spectrum who have sought counseling have been advised (by therapists who have experience with the disorder) to “reframe” AS/HFA in a positive light, thus setting-up a self-fulfilling prophecy that works toward “ability” rather than disability. Everyone on the spectrum has significant areas of strength (even if this has not been translatable into tangible success yet).

In reframing, AS/HFA is thought of as a “condition” full with possibilities, strengths, and challenges that are able to be addressed adequately. In this state of mind, you will tend to view yourself as “able” (and maybe even better off than the general population). With this mindset, you may very well “set the world on fire” with your area of expertise (e.g., engineering, computer programming, etc.).

3. Labels tend to help the person abandon a level of responsibility.

If you receive the label of AS/HFA, you can say to yourself and others, “See, this is why I can’t - or don’t - do certain things. It’s not my fault – it’s my disorder.” When others are in agreement that you are “not able,” you are free from meeting certain expectations from family, friends, co-workers, employers, etc. You can safely lower your standards, settling for the “comfort zone” that comes with the assistance (or over-assistance) of others.

There are hundreds of 25-year-old adult children, for example, with AS/HFA who are still living at home playing video games all day. Why? Their parents “bought into” the “disability reframe” years ago. As a result, the adult child behaves in accordance with his label, even though - WITH THERAPY – he could likely be employed, happily married, and living on his own home.

So, are labels bad?

Does all this mean we shouldn’t have any labels? No! Without labels, you wouldn’t be able to understand “clusters of traits” (i.e., a set of symptoms that defines a particular mental, emotional and behavioral state). However, it is important to “reframe” the label as an opportunity to exploit your strong points AND address the areas that present challenges. 

Thinking in terms of being “ability-based” rather than “disability-based” is empowering and helps the labeled person to be all that he/she can be rather than settling for a life of mediocrity.

As one adult with Asperger’s stated:

“I think it's only a ‘disability’ because the world is not well-matched for those of us on the spectrum. I can't think of any of my issues that couldn't be solved by simply being in a more autism-friendly world. I am high functioning in spite of my issues and am not "disabled" in any part of my life that matters to me. I can do what other people do, just with a bit more effort sometimes. But most NT’s can't do what I do, so I win. I think that Asperger’s is a ‘difference’, and what can be different can be beautiful.”

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