If you ever get into a discussion with me about sports, it probably won’t take you long to learn that I am an avid Pittsburgh Steelers fan.  I was born in the Steel City, and my family have been Pittsburgh fans going back two generations.

So maybe you can imagine my reaction when a couple of weeks ago I got an e-mail from the Steelers’ long-time rival, the Cleveland Browns, that began “Dear Browns Fan,” asking me if I would answer a fan satisfaction survey.  How had they come to the conclusion that I was a Browns fan?  A note at the end of the e-mail explained:

You have received this email because you have identified yourself to be a Browns fan or have demonstrated an affinity for the Club through a purchase or purchases you have made through the NFL or one of the NFL’s participating business partners.

I realized what had happened.  In addition to being a Steelers fan, I also enjoy learning about pro football history in general, particularly the history of all four of the teams in the Steelers’ division.  (Their stories are interconnected in some interesting ways.)  A while ago, I had bought a book from Amazon.com about the great Cleveland Browns teams of the late 1940s and early 1950s, who played in ten consecutive league championship games, winning 6 of them.  It was a good book, even though I don’t agree with its conclusion that those Browns were the greatest team of all time– the 1970s Steelers–of course– hold that honor, in my opinion.  ; )

The Browns’ e-mail illustrates one of the difficulties of defining something that is internal (team allegiance) by a set of outward characteristics (book purchases)– while it seems reasonable to assume that the majority of people who bought that book are Browns fans, it’s not true in every case.  But since the Browns didn’t have a chance to ask me if I was really a fan before they sent the e-mail, they made the best guess they could.

I think that’s similar in some ways to the task of defining something like Asperger’s.  It requires working backwards.  At first, all you have to go by are the outward characteristics, like the things that Hans Asperger noticed about some of the children he saw as a pediatrician.  You begin writing down character traits that go together, that form a pattern– a “syndrome,” and watch for those in other people.  The more people you see, the more data you gather, the more information you have, and you can try to form theories about what cognitive differences can explain these characteristics, and you can try to look for physical differences in the brain that may explain the source of these differences in thinking.

But at the same time, you also find that the set of characteristics you wrote down isn’t exactly right– maybe you left something out, maybe you included something that doesn’t belong, or maybe you misinterpreted the reason that two characteristics seem to go along with each other.  So you have to be open to the possibility that the definition of the syndrome itself will change the more you learn about it.  Science is “messy” like that.

I wrote all of that stuff because I wanted to find a structure that would help me talk more specifically about the traits of Asperger’s syndrome, and for that I’ve decided to use the diagnostic criteria given in the 4th (and current) edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or the DSM-IV for short.  The DSM-IV is widely used in the United States, and understandably, a lot of argument goes on about it every time it’s revised.

The 4th edition was published in 1994, and it was the first edition to attempt to provide diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s syndrome– it uses six such traits to define Asperger’s.  (Note that it doesn’t try to explain why these traits are associated with Asperger’s, or what causes Asperger’s, or what people with Asperger’s should do/not do.  These questions are all outside its scope.  It’s merely trying to give a list of characteristics to look for.)

Finally, I want to say that I’m not any sort of doctor, and I have never studied psychiatry, so please don’t treat me as an expert!  The only “Aspie” I’m an expert on is myself, and I wanted to share my observations about how I think some of the traits in the definition fit me, and how others don’t, and some pondering over why that might be.  There was a period before I was diagnosed when everything I read about Asperger’s seemed to make me change my mind about whether I fit the description or not, and even now there are times that I feel unsure.

Well, I originally meant to actually get to some of the criteria in this post, but instead I got all of that introductory disclaimer stuff out of the way.  So, a partial success!  More posts later!