This is basically a continuation of my post from yesterday– thanks for your patience, because there’s a lot to explain about Asperger’s syndrome!  In that post, I told you about Dr. Asperger and the children he called “little professors” in 1944.

Just one year before that, in 1943, an American phychiatrist named Leo Kanner had published a paper about some children who had a condition that he named autism.  The root “auto” means “self,” and Kanner used this term because these children seemed to be withdrawn into their own little worlds.

Do you know anyone who is autistic?  People with autism vary greatly in the symptoms they show.  Some never speak their entire lives, some learn to communicate with the help of computer devices or cards, some speak a little, and some learn to speak just as well as anyone.

People with autism are often very sensitive to outside stimuli– sounds, lights, and touch sensations that others don’t even notice can be unbearable to an autistic person.  Children with autism may scream at the top of their lungs, hit themselves, bang against a wall, or sit and stare for hours, seemingly doing nothing.  Sometimes these sorts of behaviors lessen as a child grows up, and sometimes they don’t.  Some autistic people are able to take care of themselves, some just barely get by, and some can’t live on their own.

Hans Asperger didn’t know about Kanner’s research, but he actually chose the same term, autism, to describe the children he wrote about one year later.  These children had strengths and weaknesses that gave them unique struggles because they didn’t quite fit in, but as Asperger wrote, “we can show that despite abnormality, human beings can fulfill their social role within the community, especially if they find understanding, love and guidance.”

Now, jump forward to 1981, when Lorna Wing was writing about Hans Asperger’s work and coining the term Asperger’s syndrome.  She saw many similarities between the traits of AS and the traits of autism– it seemed more like a difference in intensity than a completely different condition.

She advanced the idea that autism is a spectrum disorder that includes Asperger’s syndrome.  Just as the colors in the spectrum of light blend smoothly from one to the next, the traits of autism can be present to any degree, from slight to severe, in any individual.

Wing wrote that autism could be looked at as a continuum that

ranges from the most profoundly physically and mentally retarded person… to the most able, highly intelligent person with social impairment in its subtlest form as his only disability. It overlaps with learning disabilities and shades into eccentric normality.

This can be one of the most confusing things to understand, especially for someone like me who thinks in ordered categories.  People don’t fit neatly into ordered categories.  Where is the dividing line between a “disorder” and a “learning disability,” between a “learning disability” and an “extreme personality type”?  It’s not easy to find, and in a lot of cases, depends on how you look at things.

If you’ve been reading these posts, you may have had the reaction “That sounds a bit like me!  Could I have Asperger’s syndrome?”  I don’t know– maybe!  It’s a hard thing to pin down, because many of the things that people with Asperger’s struggle with can also be common struggles for people who are shy, or introverted, or just plain human!  I can say “I have trouble remembering names and faces” or “I am terribly nervous about job interviews,” and 99% of the people reading the blog will be able to think of a situation when they felt the same way.  It might be a matter of the frequency or the severity of the struggle being greater for one person than another, or of the reason behind the struggle being different for the person with AS than the person without.

It’s common to hear terms like “low-functioning autism” for people who are non-verbal (do not speak) or otherwise severely handicapped, and “high-functioning autism” for people like me who have Asperger’s, or for other autistics who are able to be more independent in our society.  However, even this distinction oversimplifies the matter.  Some non-verbal autistics post websites and blogs that are deep and eloquent– for them, it was just a matter of finding a way to communicate.  Are they high-functioning or low-functioning?

And speaking personally, there are times when I have the energy to appear very high-functioning in one aspect of life, like carrying on a conversation, and there are other times when one little disruption to my routine makes me want to hide in the corner.  I’m not even consistent at one level from moment to moment.

I hope this post isn’t giving anyone a headache– I’m afraid this was the most “lecture-like” post I’ve done, but I couldn’t think of another way to talk about this subject.  In the end, autism and Asperger’s syndrome are still labels created by human beings.  I think they are useful labels, but no label can fully describe a person.

I take comfort in the fact that my heavenly Father knows me completely, even better than I know myself, and that he accepts me in Christ as who I am– his child.

“For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

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