Autism in old money: the changing meanings of terminology

I wonder what you make of your diagnosis.

I don’t just mean whether or not you’re comfortable with it. It’s a great deal more than that.

Terms like autism and Asperger’s Syndrome seem to change their meanings over time.

When I was diagnosed at the age of 21, back around the time Asperger’s was becoming well known, it was seen as being the more high-functioning end of the spectrum. You could plug yourself to employers, group leaders etc who’d never heard of it before by saying that it was like autism but not as severe and the difference was that you had more capacity to learn and develop. Or was that just my misunderstanding? No doubt several labelled autistic will be about to cast metaphorical mudballs at me for that but as I say, definitions change with time.

Growing up without a diagnosis, I was able to look at a boy with ‘grand mal’ epilepsy (to use the terminology of the time) who had had a seizure at the age of five and been stuck at that mental age seemingly for the rest of his life. I’ll never forget when I was eleven and he was seventeen, the family came to visit us and he asked me if I had any records of the Mr Men he could listen to. Or a boy who went to the same school as me (which was neither special nor state) who had lost many of his day-to-day abilities following a series of misconducted operations and came in with a learning support assistant in the days when the rest of us who had various difficulties weren’t deemed to need one.

To me, they were the ones with problems. I could be told something wasn’t appropriate and stop doing it (inasmuch as a teenager with an attitude problem can be expected to). It didn’t occur to me that the fact that I needed telling not to chew gum from under the desks (my mother disapproved of my buying the stuff) or eat ice from off the school biology pond (“You do know that fish droppings float don’t you!” remarked one teacher) showed something was distinctly not right. That I could not see the border between normal childhood misbehaviour and seriously beyond the pale (hygienically if nothing else) misconduct told me nothing. Not when other kids were getting suspended or being given a weekly report to get signed at the end of every class. I should add that I grew out of these revolting habits around the age of thirteen and gained an increased amount of respect from fellow pupils with the passage of time.

So when at seventeen, I learnt from my mother of the possibility of this milder form of autism, everything slowly started to make sense. It was plugged to me as a disorder where the sufferer had more potential for development than those with fully-blown autism (or Kanner’s Syndrome as they were calling it at the time as I recall) and I could accept that.

The typical image of one with ‘autism’ up till about the turn of the 21st century was of one who said little if anything, treated people like objects and generally only Down’s Syndrome was seen as being more severe in terms of mental handicap.

Mental handicap. There’s another one. Now you’re supposed to say ‘learning difficulty’. But ‘learning difficulty’ and ‘mental handicap’ used to be a helpful differentiation. One meant mild and the other meant severe. Or rather mental handicap meant your speech was permanently slurred, your words few and your hobbies nothing short of juvenile.

Now I’m told that the official definitions of terms like Asperger’s have changed such that at least one person I know whose original diagnosis was ‘atypical autism’ would now be classed as having Asperger’s Syndrome.

But most of us, I guess, thrive on being able to see our diagnosis as being a glass slightly more than half-full so that we can feel able to go out and socialise, apply for jobs and not think of there as being too much stigma to overcome.

Now they want to abolish the term Asperger’s Syndrome in favour of simply saying that autism is mild or severe. But when there’s even been a difference, according to the experts, between Asperger’s and high-functioning autism (and I’ve even heard it’s possible to have both) simply narrowing it down to two forms seems rather unhelpful.

But somewhere in my mind, I’m still an Asperger in old money. Autistic but with potential for development. Perhaps I just misunderstood my mother (now sadly departed along with Dad). But it’s given me confidence as well as a sense of reality about things over the years and continues to do so.

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3 thoughts on “Autism in old money”

  1. As a child I always knew I was different to the other kids in school. While other children were watching My Little Pony I was watching Doctor Who and Star Fleet (which, back then, was strange for a girl). I used to like spinning on the spot until I was dizzy and the world was literally revolving around me. I was obsessed with many things and often felt that either I wasn’t real or that the people around me were androids.

    My diagnosis came as a relief to me. Now I can be “That interesting woman” rather than “That weird kid” and nobody questions my behaviour. I can be my eccentric but likeable self and not feel that I’m being judged as I was all those years ago.

    • I can understand about the spinning on the spot. I remember doing that when I was little. As for the ‘strange for a girl’ hobbies it saddens me that people try to assign certain types of hobby or ability to a gender the way they would certain clothing and physiognomy. My mum grew up reading Biggles books. An element of tomboy but nothing to be considered weird about.

  2. Great article. A lot of people still don’t understand people with Aspergers and just label us. For me I never had a good time accepting it as I was mentally abused by a family friend who thought she knew it all, and because of I had Aspergers she would humiliate me in front of my friends (so called) and wanted me to tell everyone that I had come in contact with.so really I treat my Aspergers as an enemy.

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