Is Autism too broad a term?
Is the term autism too broad? This is a question which goes right to the heart of what autism is.
The fact is – the term autism is interpreted differently by different people. To some, autism might represent people who are socially awkward and whose interests are narrow. In other cases, it can refer to a disorder which severely impacts on quality of life; both for the person with autism, and their family.
While those with severe autism suffer a potentially destructive medical disability and have a life expectancy of around 40, those with mild autism can lead ‘normal’ lives and are much more capable of mixing with the general population, despite social difficulties.
Blurring the lines?
A study published last year by the University of Montreal and reported by the Guardian found that the difference between the general population and those diagnosed with autism is narrowing. This development might be entirely due to the widening of the definition of the term autism.
As Université de Montréal professor Laurent Mottron explained: “The objective difference between people with autism and the general population will disappear in less than 10 years. The definition of autism may get too vague to be meaningful.”
What’s the solution to Autism being a broad term?
The issue of autism being such a broad term lies in the misperception of the condition. This risks trivialising or underestimating the extent to which those with severe autism suffer, and require care. Writing in the Guardian, autism self-advocate and author Tom Clements explained that one way to resolve the problem would be to divide severe and mild autism into two separate conditions.
Mr Clements said: “It has become apparent, not just to scientists but to many in the community, that autism needs dividing into separate conditions, starting with the reintroduction of Asperger syndrome, as an important differentiator between mild and severe variants. Contemporary autism discourse and research are both skewed in favour of the verbally able autistic population at the expense of the most vulnerable and, with the growing popularity of the neurodiversity concept, this gap is sure to increase.”
He concluded with a rallying call for change: “It’s high time that changed and that the lower end of the autism was treated with the seriousness it deserves. The wellbeing of some of society’s most vulnerable people depends on it.”
Seeking treatment for children with autism
The high stakes of this issue become clear when we consider the potential problem of misdiagnosis for children. Discussing the findings of her autism committee, Catherine Lord, director at the New York-Presbyterian Hospital’s Center for Autism and the Developing Brain, said: “It was clear that the same child could get a PDD-NOS, Asperger or autism diagnosis from different people, depending on who diagnosed them. It was also clear that kids could get a different diagnosis at different points of their lives.”
This concern, perhaps more than anything, speaks to the need for change, and clarity.