Is Aspergers a Mental Illness?

Monday, I was listening to a talk show on NPR. I don’t remember what talk show but I do remember the topic, Geriatric Psychiatry. They were discussing how the diagnosis and even the manifestation of mental illness changes as a person ages. A woman called in. Her husband, aged about 65, had recently been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. She was upset because he refused to get any help or acknowledge the diagnosis at all. The tension had become so great that he had asked for a divorce.

The doctor launched into a discussion of how elderly people can struggle when being diagnosed with a mental illness, even if they have had the symptoms of that mental illness for years.

Mental Illness? I sat there a little stunned. I have never thought of my son as having a mental illness. Is Asperger’s Syndrome a mental illness?

I decided the best place to start was the dictionary. After typing in, “Mental Illness” at Merriam Webster’s online dictionary, all I found was a link to “Mental Disorder.”

Definition of MENTAL DISORDER: a mental or bodily condition marked primarily by sufficient disorganization of personality, mind, and emotions to seriously impair the normal psychological functioning of the individual.

Asperger’s Syndrome and Autism does change the psychological function of an individual. However, is it an impairment?

I think the first thing I had to deal with is my own emotional reaction to the word illness. It became clear that my reaction to the word illness was closely linked with the still lingering social stigma attached to mental illness. Illness to me is something that has to be cured, eradicated, beaten. A cold is an illness, something you “get over.” I have never seen Daniel’s Asperger’s as something he needs to get over.

Then I thought about illnesses you can never get over. Diabetes is something you can never get over and must find a way to live with and I consider it an illness. I guess, I would have to admit that I have always further defined illness in my own mental dictionary as something that causes the body to be broken in some way. Is Daniel broken? My gut response – NO!

It dawned on me that whether we consider something broken depends on how we expect it to function. For example if I sat down to play piano and drum beats started coming out, I may consider it broken because it didn’t do what I expected.

We define Asperger’s particularly and Autism too by our expectations. The “symptoms” of PDD are measured primarily by our expectations. We expect that our child will speak by a certain point. We expect that they will interact with us in a typical way. We expect that they will learn the unspoken social codes we all live by without us having to delineate it for them. We expect that they will potty train within certain parameters. We expect nuerotypical behavior and developmental progression. It is when the expected progression does not occur that we seek a diagnosis.

The atypical development of a person with Asperger’s or Autism creates struggles in how they interact with a typical society. In that way, I can see how there is an argument for impairment as a description of the Autistic person’s experience. Based on that assumption, there is an argument that PDD, Asperger’s and Autism could be described as a mental condition marked primarily by sufficient disorganization of personality, mind, and emotions as to seriously impair the normal psychological functioning of the individual or Mental Disorder or illness.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders classifies Autism Spectrum disorders as an Axis I disorder, clinical disorders, including major mental disorders, and learning disorders. Under that very general definition, I can see why some may classify Asperger’s Syndrome as a mental illness. However, for me, PDD, Aspergers, Autism will never be a mental illness. It will always be an alternative way of developing.

My son, and others Aspies I have met have such unique ways of looking at the world that I can not see it as a serious impairment. This unique perspective allows them to understand and observe the world in a way we NTs (Neurotypicals) don’t and sometimes can’t reach. I think in the past we have benefited greatly from the discoveries and developments made by people whom, in today’s society, would be classified as Asperger’s if not high functioning Autistic.

While Aspergers and PDD-related syndromes have struggles that can be classified similarly, I can not see this type of development as something that is broken, an impairment or an illness. Instead I see it as a unique set of strengths and weaknesses, similar to the strengths and weaknesses we all have, only more pronounced by their uniqueness.

When I speak to my son, I don’t pity him. I challenge him to overcome his unique struggles similarly to how I have had to overcome my own weaknesses. I encourage him with stories of other great men and women who have overcame adversity and used their uniqueness to benefit humanity and achieve personal greatness. I don’t believe my son is broken. Quite the contrary, I believe he has something amazing to offer this world.

What is the perspective of the Aspie community? Do you see yourself as mentally ill? Do you think Asperger’s syndrome, Autism and other PDD disorders as mental illness? How is this defined for you?

Note: My experience is primarily with Asperger’s and high functioning autism. I realize that severe Autism and other disorders have more pronounced disabilities. My perspective is influenced by my son’s high functioning. I can see how with severe Autism, it could be seen as an impairment.

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About aspergersmom

I am a 35 year old woman. I am the wife of an amazing man, who keeps me sane. As a recent California/Florida transplant to the midwest and the mother to a combined family of 6 children; 3 boys, 3 girls, my life is an adventure. I blog and raise our family with my best friend.
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24 Responses to Is Aspergers a Mental Illness?

  1. Sheila says:

    My son believes that he is mentally ill because of this diagnosis at 17 with Asperger’s. I try to explain that it is not an illness but that he is made differently. With what I am learning is typical Aspie logic, he explained to me that if his brain is made differently then he is mentally ill.
    I just want to help him. There is no reasoning with him, no way to make him accept this diagnosis.

    • One Human Being says:

      i believe he is incorrect. made differently does NOT equal “ill.” An illness can generally be addressed with medication, treatment, etc. to be kept at-bay or cured (unless it’s fatal or incurable). When treated, the symptoms would be reduced or eliminated. As far as i know, there is no cure or treatment to reduce or eliminate the basic outplaying (“symptoms”) of Asperger’s Syndrome. (However, Aspy’s CAN learn coping skills, etc. to function better in the world.)

      The (Aspy) way that he developed is a-typical in the population — “abnormal” if you will — statistically NOT the norm. It MAY be a disorder… perhaps not allowing the person to function completely successfully in our present/modern culture. Though that is a matter for sociological interpretation! !!! Perhaps the majority of us are the impaired ones and Aspies are the ones who were more well-made. !!! Even if that is so, however, Aspies still have a tough hand dealt to them, since they are not in the majority AND are also not appreciated for their particular uniquenesses.

  2. James says:

    Mental = Psychological = Mind = Software
    Asperger’s = Neurological = Brain = Hardware

    No, Asperger is not a form of Mental Illness. I have an IQ of 148 (top 0.1% of the population) and my housemate has an IQ of 176 (top 0.00002%) if Asperger’s were mental illness, people would be lined up around the block to see how they could make themselves develop it!

    Proud 37 year-old Aspergian, employed as a dis/Ability Advocate — Asperger’s is not something I “have” or “suffer”, it’s who I am……and I damn well like who I am!

    • Karin Lawrence says:

      Sorry, but the hardware/software analogy is a bit specious, isn’t it?

      “Mental” doesn’t equal “brain”?

      “Mental” is only psychological – not also “neurological”?

      However, I appreciate what you’re advocating. I have to tell you though, that while IQ might be high for some people with Asperger’s Syndrome, at the same time there might also be severe empathic impairment – an impairment which is entirely of the brain, and which is also severely limiting for many.

      For those who do find limitations, especially in relationships, the “we are just different” line is unhelpful, and even damaging.

    • Suzie says:

      Yay! You make me happy that I recently found out I’m an Aspie! Although some Aspies excel at an extreme level with some subjects some of us have difficulty with others. I’ve scored high and low depending on which IQ test is used. For example I’ve never been a spacial thinker but I am extremly logical. I just mean most aspies have strong interests. Subject matter can make a huge difference.

    • Joan says:

      My adult son saw a person working in the “Social” system who admitted she didnt know much about Aspergers, but works with a couple of people with it. We wanted to get a referral to someone who might be able to diagnose it. My son feels he has Aspergers and after reading childhood symptoms I got a shiver up my spine. She sat there and insisted my son didnt have it, saying Aspies cant communicate properly, and my son was answering questions fine.With that limited info about him and his background, and her comment that Aspergers is a mental illness like mental retardation, I was appauled for the individuals she sees who are Aspies.With limited knowledge and contact with someone…is it always obvious?
      Cant it sometimes be hard to tell by only having them sit there in a controlled environment…answering questions about how they have been doing?

  3. Xanthe Wyse says:

    I find the terms illness/medical condition/disorder/disability that many use to be confusing, because this is just the way me and my son are. But because we are different from the majority, we are seen as defective. Because workplaces require people to have a certain style of social skills etc, we are seen to be lacking/disabled.
    My honesty is received as rudeness. My own family don’t want to know me. Yet, I see neurotypical people that are skilled at manipulating/scheming to be the strange ones. Odd, isn’t it?

  4. Judi says:

    My daughter was diagnosed at 16, just last spring. While I don’t consider her to have a mental illness, I am still frustrated. I believe that I should expect the same from her in terms of chores, school work and responsibility as the rest of my children. I feel that she needs to learn these things in order to function in society. I don’t feel that Asperger’s should be an excuse for laziness, or the inability to realize that you can’t blame someone else (or even the couch) because the phone got lost between the cushions. After her diagnosis, I could see the symptoms had been there all along, but I was able to work with and understand what she needed. At the same time, her father is dismissing it because he is unwilling to work with her. The things that brought us to the diagnosis have gotten worse. Or perhaps it is the stress of our eminent move that is making things worse.

  5. Andrew says:

    Is there any substance to a link between upbringing and Aspergers Syndrome? i.e is it nature or nurture?

    • aspergersmom says:

      Current studies as reported by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes, “points to brain abnormalities as the cause of AS. Using advanced brain imaging techniques, scientists have revealed structural and functional differences in specific regions of the brains of normal versus AS children. These defects are most likely caused by the abnormal migration of embryonic cells during fetal development that affects brain structure and “wiring” and then goes on to affect the neural circuits that control thought and behavior.” http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/asperger/detail_asperger.htm

      There is additional support for the genetic link because Asperger’s Syndrome tends to run in families.

      However, as with most things, it can exacerbate by uneducated and neglect in upbringing. It is important for everyone involved in raising a child with this diagnosis to educate themselves regarding the Syndrome and ways to best support the child.

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  8. jamie says:

    Dear sheila, please consider the fact that your child may say hes disabled becuase he actually feels that way, instead of telling him nothings wrong here his disabling pain and help him see past it! I was recently diagnosed after i felt suicidal feelings and hospitalized myself in attempt for someone to sort through my mind and help me. I know i can learn the right thoughts and im not sure if its lack of attention, ego or lack of empathy that has made me so socially slow,… How do neurotypicals learn? I guess to decide how disabled and mentally ill we are we need to descide why we are that way! Power of mind is everything!

  9. Suzie says:

    I recently found out just before my 22 b-day I am an Aspie. Ever since I discovered my life changing diagnoses I wanted to know more of its classification. My curiosity led me to this article. I am relieved to find there are some who agree with my view. I do not consider pervasive developmental disorders/autism spectrum disorders as mental illness. As an uninsured sufferer who found out during adulthood rather than childhood I find it sad how little help there is. Because of the mental illness label an MD cannot help me until I have an official diagnoses completed. Keep in mind I did have had my diagnoses confirmed but b/c the therapist was a friend I will not risk there reputation, for seeing me how you say off the books. I have several serious unresolved health problems dating back to childhood related to the Aspergers or high functioning autism that need to be addressed immediately but not before cutting through ten miles of red tape. Having been in the past misdiagnosed several times I have faith that someday soon the entire autism spectrum will be reclassified as something other than mental illness. The neurological as opposed to just the psycological.

  10. Alex says:

    As an Aspie, I would have to say that I have never viewed myself as being “mentally ill.” But of course, this come from the perspective of someone who lives with it. The sad truth is that many people are ignorant, including many professionals. I’ve been seeing a therapist for two years and he does not believe that I have Aspergers, despite my receiving a formal diagnosis. The reason for this is that I “don’t carry myself like a person with Aspergers” and that I “am capable of empathy, unlike a person with Aspergers.” Truthfully, this is just ignorance. Aspergers is just a part of who I am — what make me an individual. Society tends to label differences as being bad and something that needs to be fixed. My neurotypical friends are always trying to correct my behavior because they just can’t understand my point-of-view. They think I’ll be a lot happier if I just fit in. The truth of the matter is that a lot of people don’t truly understand what Aspergers is. They think that because they’ve had one experience with one Aspie, they ultimately assume that they “understand” Aspergers. On the flip side, I as an Aspie can understand things that my neurotypical friends cannot. They often come to me for advice and guidence, yet I can’t understand how they don’t understand what I understand. It all seems so logical to me. In this regard, I could argue that neurotypicals are all stupid. This of course is not true, but it all has to do with how we perceive each other.

  11. Su says:

    Why do people have to belong to a label? Mainly because, if they don’t, they don’t get any support from local government. People with autism need help to be accepted in society and those who work with them need help too to understand their being different. Families with young children with autism need huge support to understand their child and enjoy life more positively. I was labelled a bad mother for many years, although I knew there was something different about my son. But again, what is different? Society labels anything that differs from the norm. This is the big problem! Also, IQ measures only one type of intelligence. There are many types we are all blessed with, so high IQ only means very good at a certain way of processing information. ICD-10 and other classifications for mental disorders (note that there has been a change to the nomenclature in the MHA 1983, revised 2007, from mental illness or disorder, to now just disorder, in order not to confuse things) classifies people into little boxes, so when they have a diagnosis of a mental disorder, in goes the treatment, usually biological interventions (forget NICE guidelines too!). But then again, if another psychiatrist makes a diagnosis on the same subject, there goes another label (they seldom agree on diagnosis) and in go more pills. Pills make lots of money for few clever people who carry out RCTs (randomised controlled trials) mostly designed to give the answer they want, which then becomes evidence-based. Ouch!
    There is a huge need to learn about autism in our society, so that we (normals???) can empathise with people with autism better and live alongside a more fulfilling and supportive life. I am extremely worried that it will come to the point when anyone who differs in the slightest (from norms which we ‘normals’ set???), will be labelled as ICD-10 … something and then, God help them if they fall under the spell of the Mental Health Act, as from then on, they lose their rights as free citizens, and become objects of medical experimentation and abuse of power (forget the code of practice, nobody takes much notice of it).

  12. iadsouza says:

    Rachel, when my son was determined as ADD, I went through the DSM and found that many of the conditions could be referred to me in a general way . And I reasoned out in a way we all have mental illness to a certain extent . Some predominantly more in certain areas that’s all.

    • aspergersmom says:

      I think you are probably right. We are all a little crazy. I believe that receiving a diagnosis of Asperger’s is primarily help becuase it is a way to better understand yourself and obtain services in institutions such as schools.

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    • aspergersmom says:

      I agree with you. I do not truly see Asperger’s Syndrome and Autism as a mental illness. I think in mild forms it is a form of neurodiversity. In severe cases, it is a neurological issue. However, the medical community designates these as a mental illnesses as evidenced by its inclusion in the DSM IV. I think the only reason the label of mental illness is an issue is because of the social stigma surrounding that label. I wonder if society no longer saw mental illness as repellant, would we still feel so upset at having our particular situation labeled as a mental illness?

  14. Glenn Buskirk says:

    Since the Newtown shooting in December (2012), there has been a lot of discussion in the press regarding Asperger’s Syndrome. It is often reported that the shooter was “diagnosed” with a “mental illness” called Asperger’s Syndrome. It isn’t said, diagnosed by whom? For what purposes. [Many parents are told in schools, don't worry about the label, as long as your child is qualified for the services he/she needs.] Now you hear about how society needs to identify these individuals…these loner’s..social outcasts, etc. I have yet to see professionals come forward and say..People with Asperger’s are some of the most productive in society; they are all around you. You used to call them quiet, extremely shy, introverted. Great people in history and in society today meet the criteria for AS, but function normally and achieve great things.
    Ostracizing people who are a bit different is more likely to isolate them from society and magnify the issue, not help it.
    There are co-morbidities that sometimes accompany AS, but are not part of it, and not all people with AS have. Because one knows one person with AS who has a co-morbid condition, does not make it a condition of all people with AS. It is a fallacy of causation to say that when a person with AS does something, he does it because he has AS.

  15. Chandra says:

    I do not think that Aspergers is a “mental Illness” however, individuals with Aspergers often suffer mental illness such as depression, anxiety, ADHD, etc. So for Aspergers itself my answer is no but certain aspects of Aspergers could define this…does that make any sense?

  16. Susan Love says:

    I have Aspergers. I do not believe I am mentally ill. I have problems with social situations, but that is not exclusive to Aspergers. I graduated high school, married, had two great children. I can see things with a completely different perspective but I don’t believe that makes me mentally ill. We are different, but, no, I don’t think we are mentally ill. And it really made me upset when they mentioned Aspergers in connection to that shooter in Newtown. Why not blame it on his blue, brown or green eyes? It makes as much sense to me as to blame it on Aspergers.

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