Why is "Asperger's" a controversial word?

Recently, when hosting Saturday Night Live, Elon Musk described himself as having Asperger’s, causing a shock wave of controversy in the mental health community. Why has “Asperger’s” become a controversial term, and if it’s so controversial, why do people still claim to have it?

Asperger syndrome, or Asperger's, was first formally identified and given its name in 1981, in honor of Dr. Hans Asperger, an Austrian pediatrician who had first diagnosed the condition in the 1940’s. The syndrome typically features a combination of a high IQ and difficulties in social situations and sometimes with motor skills.


Over the years, people diagnosed with Asperger syndrome often found solace in the naming of their condition and knowing that there are treatments that can help. Some have even claimed the term as a point of pride or identity, calling themselves “Aspies” for short.

But in 2013, the American Psychological Association (APA) decided to stop using this term, instead including people with the condition in the autism spectrum. It turns out that this has caused problems for many in the community.

For one thing, some argue that the typical characteristics of Asperger’s differ from those that many people with autism suffer from, most notably verbal difficulties.

The counter-argument is that the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) classifies three levels of autism ,differentiating between individuals who are able to take part in mainstream society with little difficulty and those who may need significant help.

Some say that those who still insist on identifying themselves as having Asperger’s are showing a sort of sense of superiority or snobbery, not wanting to be associated with others on the autism spectrum.

This is especially damning to people like psychologist Devon Price, who’s familiar with the syndrome’s controversial history.

As this fascinating article explains, for a long time, Dr. Asperger was seen as a savior, defending children with the condition that would later bear his name and keeping them from being put to death under the Nazi regime. But recent scholarship has revealed that while Asperger did help these children, he considered children with other forms of autism as inferior and sent them to clinics to die.

When this came to light, many former Aspies chose to renounce their moniker. But for others, it’s more complicated than that. Cited in the same article, psychologist Dr. Adam McCrimmon explains:

“There has been pushback from the Asperger’s community because many people view it less as a diagnosis and more as their identity….They have friends with Asperger’s, go to Aspie conferences, and belong to Aspie networks. So, when scientists began saying it was no longer an official diagnosis, they said “no, we have Asperger’s; we are Aspies.”

Many support groups and websites dedicated to autism information acknowledge and respect this decision. For instance, Autism Speaks, an organization offering support and help to people on the spectrum, includes a page on their website specifically entitled “What is Asperger syndrome?”. The page features basic information about this condition, including its new classification. It also acknowledges that the word “Asperger’s” is no longer officially used, but specifies that some who were diagnosed before this change prefer to continue to identify as “Aspies.”

You can also still find the term “Asperger’s” used on seemingly neutral sites like WebMD, as in this article from June 2020.

Whatever your opinion, it’s hard to deny that the controversy is a fascinating one. Imagine that you’re diagnosed with a syndrome with a specific name. This name leads you to find you to find support, understanding, and a community. It’s also an easy byword that gives mainstream society some notion of what your condition might entail, thanks to its strong presence in popular culture. Would you suddenly stop using the term because a large entity decided it was no longer valid?

In a world where we are encouraged to identify ourselves however we want, it seems unfair for those who find comfort and ease in using this term to have to dismiss it. You could argue that the condition’s dark history should make those formerly diagnosed with it instantly drop it, but the same argument could debatably be made for people to boycott Volkswagen or Hugo Boss.

It’s a complex question, tied to a complex condition. At the very least, understanding the dynamics will make it easier to understand why a person might still choose to identify as an “Aspie”, while others might avoid the term at all costs.


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