Autism Spectrum Disorder as a Diagnosis

Posted: November 26th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Autism | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments »

There’s been a lot of discussion about whether or not those on the autism spectrum should be included in the DSM or treated as a diagnosable condition. Silent Wave has one of the best and most comprehensive posts on this topic. I’ve been mulling the topic for some time. I think I have something of a contrary perception, but only on certain aspects and approaches. I’m still not sure I can reduce those thoughts into something coherent and understandable, but I decided it was time to at least make the attempt.

First, I do want to be clear. Autism is not a disease and is not communicable, therefore by definition it can’t be any sort of “epidemic” as we often hear bandied about. It’s also true that autism spectrum disorder doesn’t really fit well in Axis I of the DSM, but it also doesn’t fit anywhere else. The DSM doesn’t really have a way to categorize neurodevelopmental differences. ASD is placed in Axis I because it doesn’t fit anywhere else, so that becomes the catch-all Axis. While there may be environmental issues involved with flipping specific genes associated with autism, in this instance those factors are ones impacting sperm and eggs prior to conception and perhaps some environmental factors in early fetal development. By the time we are born, our neurology is already well-developed. And it’s also true that autism, even though it’s uncommon, appears to fall within the normal range of human development and seems to have been pretty consistent within humanity for a very, very long time. From an evolutionary perspective, that long-term consistency is interesting, though I’m not sure any conclusions can be drawn from it. Still, autism is not a disorder you develop after birth and it’s not something that can ever be cured or eliminated. The level of support a person requires can vary and, in certain circumstances where their environment is sufficiently managed and structured and there aren’t any other issues such as intellectual disability, an autistic person may not require any support at certain times in their life. In those circumstances, they would no longer meet the diagnostic criteria for ASD if evaluated, but their neurology would still be autistic.

However, with all that said, I don’t agree that we don’t need  some sort of formal mechanism for identifying and diagnosing autism. And I think that becomes more evident by exploring some of the places where the analogy with the LGBTQIA+ community used in Silent Wave’s post breaks down. I do want to be clear up front that I don’t consider myself a member of any segment of the LGBTQIA+ community. At most, I’m a little gender non-conforming and the way attraction interacts more with emotional intimacy than gender for me is difficult to express, but I’m generally a white, cis, straight male with all the enormous privilege that entails. I say that because I invite criticism and correction should I write anything incorrect or even problematic. I have had numerous family members and friends who are a part of one segment or another in that larger group going back much of my life and I’ve tried to listen and learn from the things they’ve told me. But I recognize the risk in trying to express things you’ve learned from others.

I want to say that it’s not clear to me that the LGBTQIA+ community is really one community at all as much as a collection of communities marginalized by our larger society for their sexual and/or gender identity. It’s my observation that many lesbians and gays reject bisexual identity, the trans community tends to be pushed to the outskirts of the community, asexuality and agender or nonbinary identities are often outright denied, and actual intersex individuals tend to be forgotten. Moreover, it doesn’t appear to surprise anyone in that community when white, gay men throw the rest of them under the bus. Gender identity and sexual or romantic orientation aren’t even really the same thing. I do find it interesting that at least one recent study has found a much higher correlation with autism among the transgender community, but that’s more of a rabbit trail for a separate post than germane to this one.

And while Silent Wave was correct that homosexuality or same sex attraction was removed from the DSM, the implication that the LGBT community no longer was included in it was incorrect. Gender Dysphoria (renamed from Gender Identity Disorder) remains very much a condition classified in the DSM. I won’t pretend that’s not problematic and I’ve read much discussion about it by members of the trans community, but it nevertheless remains the primary existing avenue for medical treatment and other supports. Therefore the analogy really only applies to sexual orientation, not gender identity.

And focusing more narrowly reveals one of the issues with the analogy. Sexual attraction is something that people can work out for themselves. Even when cultures try to suppress it, it tends to overwhelm societal taboos. For many people, it’s such a primary force that even when individuals work to suppress those urges, they tend to drive behavior. It’s not something most people need help identifying. It can be a confusing and difficult process, but it’s a single, if pervasive, aspect of your identity and one that is often a driving force for many people.

The neurological differences associated with the autism spectrum, by contrast, while similar from individual to individual, tend to manifest in variable ways. The autistic aspects of our brains are intertwined with all our thoughts and many of our behaviors. We are sufficiently alike that we can understand each other and commonalities can be noted, but we are also as different from each other as unique individuals can be. Absent an available and detailed diagnosis, I believe we would fall back into the situation that held for most of my life, where we were misdiagnosed or completely unidentified. Actually, that remains more common for autistic adults even today, though awareness is slowly growing.

Many of us also need the help and guidance of a professional with the appropriate experience when we discover something that makes us think we might be autistic. And, at least in my case, it’s not because I needed a “neurotypical” to explain to me how my brain works, though discussing that aspect with a neutral professional post-diagnosis has been helpful. Rather, I did not truly understand how an allistic brain worked or how my mind specifically differed from their minds. Of course, I knew I was different. I had known that my whole life. I had been trying to work out how my brain was different my whole life. My coworkers had been discussing the ways I approached things differently for decades. But nobody ever associated those differences with autism. Autism remains uncommon in the human population and varies enough in expression that it’s not necessarily obvious except in retrospect.

And yes, with the information now available online, there is a lot that can help people make some determination for themselves that they are autistic. But that information only exists because there are plenty of diagnosed adults providing a baseline and publishing their own experiences. Even with that information, I know I never would have truly accepted the idea absent a formal evaluation. Without the input from someone with a substantial background in psychology and neuropsychology who was also experienced testing and diagnosing autistic adults, my mind would have relentlessly deconstructed and attacked the idea. That’s simply how my mind works. And a formal evaluative process requires a potential diagnosis and diagnostic criteria for it.

The above also illustrates another point where the LGB and ASD analogy breaks down. The incidence of something other than normative heterosexual attraction is an order of magnitude greater than that of autism. Autism is both trickier to recognize and identify correctly and much less common. The only other autistic adults I myself know are ones I’ve met online. And even though there is a lot of information available online, it’s largely invisible until or unless something leads you to specifically search for it. And that will always be true. We’re just not a large enough portion of the population to be substantially more visible. And it’s the existence of a diagnosis with specific criteria that creates the patterns that can be found. Without that binding element, it becomes grains of sand lost on the beach of the Internet.

It’s also not true that the mental health and coping issues those of us who are autistic experience just by living are the result of comorbid disorders or conditions rather than a direct result of being autistic. I happen to be the perfect illustration of that truth. The diagnostician who evaluated me specifically tested and evaluated me for the disorders that are most often comorbid with autism as well as a general screening for any of a wide range of disorders. When discussing the results with me, she called me the most “purely autistic” person she had ever evaluated. I am not intellectually disabled. (If anything, I met the criteria for giftedness as a child.)  I do not have ADHD. I do not have OCD. While I have a base level of anxiety, it’s related to 51 years of actual experience of failure interacting with others and probably a heightened amygdala response and does not meet the criteria for an independent anxiety disorder diagnosis. And yet I have struggled and continue to struggle with life. I live in an allistic world and I have to interact with it every single day. I do need specific counseling and help to better manage that interaction and its impact on both myself and those around me.

I’m also not comfortable with an underlying assumption I sense in the desire to be removed from the DSM, that there’s something harmful or wrong about including the autism spectrum in the DSM. The argument that autism lies within the “normal” range of human neurological variation implicitly also argues that everything else in the DSM somehow doesn’t. It seems to flow from a sense that there’s something “wrong” with having a mental health condition. People trained in psychological and neuropsychological testing are the professionals best equipped, at least as things currently stand, to diagnose autism. Their manual is the DSM, so it’s the appropriate place for the diagnostic criteria. And people with other conditions diagnosed under the DSM also fall within the normal human range of experience and variation. I would never be comfortable asserting anything else.

So yes, there are certainly problems with societal attitudes toward autistic people. There are also major issues with attitudes toward anyone with any other sort of mental health struggle. I don’t think we should try to resolve our problems by separating ourselves from everyone else with conditions delineated in the DSM. That more closely reminds me of the way different racial and ethnic groups in the United States worked to acquire “whiteness” instead of actually addressing the underlying problem with racial attitudes here.

The diagnostic criteria, the process of evaluation, the way the diagnosis is applied by clinicians, and the widespread lack of supports for autistic people all demonstrate problems and issues that need to be addressed. But even though progress is somewhat glacial currently, there have been improvements. The DSM-V diagnostic criteria are better than the DSM-IV criteria. And those were light years ahead of the DSM-III criteria and available diagnoses. The issues with obtaining evaluations reflect systemic issues in mental health care and more broadly in health care in general. There’s a lot of work to be done and progress that needs to be made. But removing autism from the DSM would not be progress. It would be a huge step backwards.

I’m not sure if I was really able to capture my thought process in writing. I’ve read my post now multiple times and aspects of it still don’t feel quite right. But I can’t think of a way to improve it, so I’ll let it stand as written.


What makes an interest “special”?

Posted: September 24th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Autism, Personal | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments »

The third Section B criterion for autism spectrum disorder in DSM V reads as follows.

Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus.

These are commonly referred to as “special interests“, which begs the question: What makes them so special? The parenthetical describes them as “excessively circumscribed or perseverative” or as a “strong attachment or preoccupation with unusual objects“. From my own life experience, which I’ll explain later, I think this also can be intertwined with the first criterion with unusual attachment and preoccupation with and use of common objects, but that stands out much less obviously as a diagnostic criterion. (As an aside, perseveration is one of my new favorite words. It captures so much about my life in a single word thought.)

Apparently, a fixation with things like train and bus schedules are stereotypical male versions of this criterion. One of a number of reasons women are severely under diagnosed is because their “special interests” tend to be in more commonly accepted areas and are distinguished more by their intensity and focus than by the nature of the interest. In that regard (and others), I think I lean a bit more toward the female phenotype of autism than the male.

The difficulty in assessing yourself, of course, is that it’s hard to see where the line between “passionate” or “fascinated” and “fixated” or “abnormal” truly lies. Still, it’s easy for me to see some of them. Science fiction and fantasy have been a lifelong fascination of mine, to the extent that I read little other fiction. (And I tend to only read non-fiction to gather information in an area that is currently one of intense focus for me, so that section of my library is … eclectic.) I’ve had family members chide me for not broadening my reading habits, and I’ve sometimes felt somewhat shamed and tried to read other things, or at least pretended I had. A nickname I acquired in 7th and 8th grade was “SciFi” because I would always have a book with me and would tend to talk about them. At length.

But my books mean more to me than that. I organize different sets in different ways. Some by the size of most of them. Series go together and authors generally belong with all their works. I like hardbound, but where I have paperbacks that go with other books, I’ll lay them on top of the hardcover volumes with which they belong. If you look at my library, it will appear disorganized and haphazard, but there’s actually a beautiful order in its arrangement. I read and reread books in my library, but there’s more to it than that. I need to have all the volumes in a series or sometimes all the works by a particular author, even if I don’t plan to immediately read them all. Any gaps will bother me until I fill them. It’s comforting to be surrounded by my books in a way I’m not sure I can describe. I like to look at them and touch them, but it’s soothing and calming even when I just feel them around me when I’m sitting and working at my computers.

I’ll cull books sometimes that don’t fit or have no special meaning to me, but I never voluntarily get rid of a book unless it’s incidental or a casual read I was given or picked up along the way. Once, as a young teen, my mother decided my “obsession” with my library was bad for me and made me throw out many of my books. That’s still as seared in my memory as many of the things that, to an external observer, appear much worse. It was awful in a way I’m not sure I can describe.

I’ve long had a similar interest in comics, though any time I let myself start collecting, it quickly gets out of control. I’m actually going to have to rein in that compulsion again since I’m getting far more than I have any time to read. But even when I’ve restricted myself from collecting any, I’ve followed the trends and happenings with my favorite characters and the universes they inhabit. I did that in bookstores and libraries and comics shops for some years. The Internet has made it much easier to stay abreast.

Especially when I was young, I was fascinated by games. I would play any game and seek to master its intricacies going back as far as I can remember. When I was in 5th grade though, I discovered Avalon Hill games. They were extraordinarily intricate with detailed, complex rules. My cousin and I would play out games and spend hours designing our own scenarios. We would play all night with no sleep. During that period of time, I even developed my own game which I remember my Dad thought was a fantastic game that should be marketed. Unfortunately, I don’t remember it at all and the board, pieces, and rules have long since been lost in the mists of time.

I dived into RPGs in 9th grade and loved them. I transferred that love to video games. In the 80s, my roommate and friends and I would gather around and play Bard’s Tale on my C64 for hours together. I stayed away from MMOs when they came out because I knew I would get overly absorbed in them. However, when my younger son was in 9th grade, he wanted to play WoW. I let him, but only if I played also so I knew what he was doing. And I loved it as I had suspected I would. After about a year we were both at max level and I joined an adults only raiding guild that was just starting. I spoke with the guildmaster and he agreed to let me son join as well. We kept our relationship quiet until he was 18 and approaching high school graduation. In that time, he had recruited for the guild and helped people improve gear, led raids and pushed his characters in directions they weren’t supposed to be able to go. (His main was a druid and during Burning Crusade, bears weren’t supposed to be able main tank raids. He was very successful at doing so even while leading the raid and coordinating everyone else.) The guild was very surprised when he revealed his age and that he was my son. When he became too busy to play as a sophomore in college, I forced myself to stop playing as well. I know how much games can consume me and I’ve learned to guard against it as I’ve gotten older.

My career has been in IT, which seems like one of the fairly common fields for those on the autism spectrum from what I’ve read. However, I wouldn’t say computers have ever been a particular, focused interest in an autistic sense. I’m fairly proficient in pretty much all major aspects of the field, though I generally tell others I always approach things from a programmer’s perspective first. I find the field fascinating. I enjoy that it requires continuous learning. I’ve accomplished some things over the years that even my highly proficient coworkers consider noteworthy and unusual. I “see” patterns which helps me both visualize ways things could tie together and work and helps me quickly perceive points of failure. But when I assess my life, computers have never held that same intensity of focus. I’m just good at it and generally enjoy doing it, which is the normal best case most of the time with a profession.

There is one corner case exception which actually has had an impact on my career and income. In the mid-90s, we were just deploying IP to replace x.25 at work and I was working with others to set a variety of things up on our development center network. It was alongside my development work, which is pretty normal for programmers. We’re always dabbling in something, or at least the good ones are. In the process, we needed to get DNS working properly for a variety of reasons. At that time, usage on our enterprise network was spotty and erratic and I started working with other technical people across the country to get their varying implementations better coordinated and integrated. Somewhere along the way, I became fascinated by the DNS protocol, its many permutations, its standards, its wire format, and all aspects of it. And as I developed the depth and breadth of my knowledge, I could make better suggestions and everyone just started implementing them. Before long, without any official assignment or authority, I had become the architect for our internal enterprise DNS. Everyone looked to me any time there was an issue, integration requirement, or design question. DNS, of course, has continued to grow over the years and I’ve remained deeply invested in studying it in all its variations, even though for most of that period it wasn’t part of my job.

However, a number of years ago, enhancements to the standard, new requirements, and various mandates created a situation where that DNS architecture at work needed to be redesigned from the ground up to meet those modern needs. Everyone our executives asked told them they needed me to do it right. So I was basically promoted into a job with that as one of my primary responsibilities. It’s not my only responsibility, of course. I always acquire additional responsibilities pretty quickly. For instance, I’m also the technical lead for our IPv6 transition PMO. But it is a major piece of my current job and the primary reason I got it. So in that instance, an interest that has been restricted and unusual in its intensity and perseveration also eventually proved beneficial in material ways.

I’m not sure it’s possible to truly explain to anyone who isn’t autistic the visceral intensity that accompanies an interest meeting this criterion. It’s not just that you really, really like it. There’s a need almost like a hunger that accompanies it. Removing or limiting the interest, which I’ve done sometimes as noted above, is still distressing even when it’s voluntary and intentional. Involuntary restriction can feel intolerable. It can also help immensely when you are overloaded. And again, it’s hard to explain exactly why.

Although I clearly see how this criterion matches my life, I have mixed feelings about “special interest” as the term to describe it. It’s the common vernacular, so using the term provides common ground with others. But the phrase seems to minimize it to me. This pervades your life and it can seriously disrupt it at times. Of course, part of the underlying reason for my reaction might be that I can’t help hearing Dana Carvey every time I see it.

 


DSM V Diagnostic Criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorder

Posted: June 22nd, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Autism | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on DSM V Diagnostic Criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorder

Below are the diagnostic criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorder from the DSM V. I wanted to have my own post to which I could refer in future posts. As I work through what each of the criteria means, I’m discovering more examples from my life. Basically, in order to be diagnosed, you have to meet all three criteria in section A and at least two of the criteria in section B. In addition, the symptoms must be present from early childhood and must limit or impair everyday functioning.

As someone who was diagnosed at 51, I had developed a host of masking strategies. It wasn’t as challenging as you might imagine to think back to childhood. Many of the examples for the criteria were things that were fixed in my memory because I had no explanation for them or through the intensity of my interest. My masking strategies for section B have also been more effective than my strategies for section A, so section B took more work to uncover.

One of the challenges as I’ve been working through the criteria to try to understand them and apply them to my life is that much of what you find online are examples from young children. And while some of those help me recall things from early childhood, they offer little explanation for how the criteria might look in an adult. The most helpful resources I have found for that have been posts and videos by other adult autistics.

If you’re reading this and you’re autistic, you already know what the criteria are. If you’re not, you may not be interested in that level of detail. I will be working through some of the specifics as they apply to me in future posts, though, so this post will provide a reference point for those discussions.

DSM-5 Diagnostic Criteria for ASD, 2013

Autism Spectrum Disorder
Must meet criteria A, B, C, and D:

A. Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts, as manifested by the following, currently or by history (examples are illustrative, not exhaustive):

  1. Deficits in social-emotional reciprocity, ranging, for example, from abnormal social approach and failure of normal back-and-forth conversation; to reduced sharing of interests, emotions, or affect; to failure to initiate or respond to social interactions.
  2. Deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviors used for social interaction, ranging, for example, from poorly integrated verbal and nonverbal communication; to abnormalities in eye contact and body language or deficits in understanding and use of gestures, to total lack of facial expressions or nonverbal communication.
  3. Deficits in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships, ranging, for example, from difficulties adjusting behavior to suit various social contexts; to difficulties in sharing imaginative play or in making friends; to an absence of interest in peers.

Specify current severity:

Severity is based on social communication impairments and restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior (see Table 2).

B. Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities as manifested by at least two of the following, currently or by history (examples are illustrative, not exhaustive):

  1. Stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech (e.g. simple motor stereotypes, lining up toys or flipping objects, echolalia, idiosyncratic phrases).
  2. Insistence on sameness, excessive adherence to routines, or ritualized patterns of verbal or nonverbal behavior (e.g., extreme distress at small changes, difficulties with transitions, rigid thinking patterns, greeting rituals, need to take same route or eat food every day).
  3. Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus (e.g. strong attachment to or preoccupation with unusual objects, excessively circumscribed or perseverative interests).
  4. Hyper-or hyporeactivity to sensory input or unusual interest in sensory aspects of the environment (e.g. apparent indifference to pain/temperature, adverse response to specific sounds or textures, excessive smelling or touching of objects, visual fascination with lights or movement).

Specify current severity:

Severity is based on social communication impairments and restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior (see Table 2).

C. Symptoms must be present in the early developmental period (but may not become fully manifest until social demands exceed limited capacities, or may be masked by learned strategies in later life).

D. Symptoms together limit and impair everyday functioning.

E. These disturbances are not better explained by intellectual disability (intellectual developmental disorder) or global developmental delay. Intellectual disability and autism spectrum disorder frequently co-occur; to make comorbid diagnoses of autism spectrum disorder and intellectual disability, social communication should be below that expected for general developmental level.

Note: Individuals with a well-established DSM-IV diagnosis of autistic disorder, Asperger’s disorder, or pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified should be given the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. Individuals who have marked deficits in social communication, but whose symptoms do not otherwise meet criteria for autism spectrum disorder, should be evaluated for social (pragmatic) communication disorder.

Specify if:
With or without accompanying intellectual impairment
With or without accompanying language impairment
Associated with a known medical or genetic condition or environmental factor (Coding note: Use additional code to identify the associated medical or genetic condition.)
Associated with another neurodevelopmental, mental, or behavioral disorder (Coding note: Use additional code[s] to identify the associated neurodevelopmental, mental, or behavioral disorder[s].)
With catatonia (refer to the criteria for catatonia associated with another mental disorder, pp. 119-120, for definition) (Coding note: Use additional code 293.89 [F06.1] catatonia associated with autism spectrum disorder to indicate the presence of the comorbid catatonia.)

Table 2: Severity levels for autism spectrum disorder

Severity level Social communication Restricted, repetitive behaviors
Level 3“Requiring very substantial support”
Severe deficits in verbal and nonverbal social communication skills cause severe impairments in functioning, very limited initiation of social interactions, and minimal response to social overtures from others. For example, a person with few words of intelligible speech who rarely initiates interaction and, when he or she does, makes unusual approaches to meet needs only and responds to only very direct social approaches Inflexibility of behavior, extreme difficulty coping with change, or other restricted/repetitive behaviors markedly interfere with functioning in all spheres. Great distress/difficulty changing focus or action.
Level 2“Requiring substantial support” Marked deficits in verbal and nonverbal social communication skills; social impairments apparent even with supports in place; limited initiation of social interactions; and reduced or  abnormal responses to social overtures from others. For example, a person who speaks simple sentences, whose interaction is limited  to narrow special interests, and how has markedly odd nonverbal communication. Inflexibility of behavior, difficulty coping with change, or other restricted/repetitive behaviors appear frequently enough to be obvious to the casual observer and interfere with functioning in  a variety of contexts. Distress and/or difficulty changing focus or action.
Level 1“Requiring support” Without supports in place, deficits in social communication cause noticeable impairments. Difficulty initiating social interactions, and clear examples of atypical or unsuccessful response to social overtures of others. May appear to have decreased interest in social interactions. For example, a person who is able to speak in full sentences and engages in communication but whose to- and-fro conversation with others fails, and whose attempts to make friends are odd and typically unsuccessful. Inflexibility of behavior causes significant interference with functioning in one or more contexts. Difficulty switching between activities. Problems of organization and planning hamper independence.