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Ed Driscoll

The End of Asperger’s on TV?

July 14th, 2013 - 11:29 am

“If Big Bang Theory aired on a Monday, you could count on more than a few parents bringing their kids in for an Asperger diagnosis on Tuesday,” writes John Elder Robison, who wrote the best-selling Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s in 2007:

The tipping point in the mainstreaming of Asperger’s arrived in 2007 with the high-functioning, haughty and hilarious theoretical physicist Sheldon Cooper and The Big Bang Theory. As the show was a hit, winning two Emmy Awards for actor Jim Parsons in the process, characters with symptoms resembling Asperger’s syndrome poured out of our television screens and infected our brains: Dr. Dixon on Grey’s Anatomy, Max Braverman on ParenthoodAbed on Community, and seemingly countless others. Almost overnight, Asperger’s had become a shorthand TV trope used to explain and excuse a character’s maddeningly inconsiderate genius.

I was diagnosed with Asperger’s a decade before these portrayals started cropping up, and for the longest time, I was alone, the only Aspergian I knew. Not anymore. In the span of just six years and countless utterances of “woof!” Asperger’s has gone from being unknown to being ubiquitous. And I don’t just mean on TV: Asperger diagnoses in the real world have skyrocketed in that same stretch of time.

The uptick in Asperger cases led to some mild hysteria. People started getting scared. Wild accusations and stupid questions were bandied about. Do televisions cause Asperger’s? What about its programming? Is there a vaccination I can have? What about lead supplements? No one knew. But we insiders did know this: If Big Bang Theory aired on a Monday, you could count on more than a few parents bringing their kids in for an Asperger diagnosis on Tuesday.

And so the CDC swooped in to do studies, and legislators convened. Time passed. Optimists hoped TV bigwigs would police the situation on their own. Finally, the American Psychiatric Association sprung into action. “We can solve this problem,” they effectively said. “It’s so simple: Let’s get rid of Asperger syndrome!” And they did just that. May 18, 2013, with the publication of the fifth edition of the APA’s industry-standard Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), was the last day that Asperger’s existed as a distinct psychiatric classification. From that day forward, any newly diagnosed patients who would have previously been classified with Asperger’s syndrome would be designated with the tag of Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, the rejiggered catchall category for autism and other pervasive developmental disorders.

Just like that, Asperger’s was gone. You can do things like that when you publish the rules. Like corrupt referees at a rigged college football game, the APA removed Asperger’s from the field of play and banished the term to the locker room of psychiatric oblivion. Their new and improved DSM went on sale two months ago, and shrinks everywhere lined up to buy it. Meanwhile, my 2007 memoir about living with Asperger’s is now deemed diagnostically obsolete. (Luckily, consumers don’t know that!)

Linking to Robison’s article, Kathy Shaidle describes Asperger’s as becoming “the Pluto of mental illnesses,” Robison himself writes that “TV is now forced to adapt to this new, Asperger’s-free reality.” But do they really? As the enormous Wikipedia-style “TV Tropes” Website points out, long after Sigmund Freud’s pioneering concepts have been rendered increasingly anathema amongst modern-day mental health professionals, all psychology remains Freudian on fictional TV. Similarly, I suspect Asperger’s will remain a popular shorthand on television for quite some time to come.

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All Comments   (13)
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"...gone from being unknown to being ubiquitous..."

Homosexuals pulled off pretty much the same trick in the 1990s.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
In case anyone's wondering, the blockquoted material comes from this article: http://www.vulture.com/2013/07/aspergers-tv-the-bridge-diane-kruger-sheldon-cooper.html
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
If various tech-related sites and forums are any indication, Asperger's is used as an excuse to behave badly.

I've no doubt that the condition actually exists, but like so many other unquantifiable conditions, some people claim to have it who do not in order to garner sympathy or to avoid being held accountable to normal standards.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Actually, its not unquantifiable at all. It just costs too much to do the extensive fMRI work needed to screen kids, and adults for that matter. So, they use subjective criteria in testing that cost about $1,250 for myself. For those high costs thank the state boards keeping MRIs so costly by making sure first user facilities have a monopoly in their area.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
It, like ADD and ADHD, really does exist, but it is much rarer than what people think it is. I worked with kids who had learning disabilities and had the pleasure of working with several Aspies and kids who really did have either ADD or ADHD. I'm thankful for those experiences in my life as they taught me a lot both about those kids and others like them and about myself, too, and about the other kids I worked with whose mothers swore they had one the other of those disorders who likely didn't have them but were simply suffering from a lack of parental control and discipline.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Always kinda saw it as a quest 'to be categorized as unique'...
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
As a father of an "Aspie" who was diagnosed at 4 years old, I thank you for bringing this to my attention.

While I applaud the news, I must say I doubt the public schools' willingness to let go of all that extra government dough for "special ed". (Their aggressive insistence to count our son as "special" led us to send him to Catholic school.)

It's ironically the kid's 16th birthday today. And while he admittedly fits the profile portrayed on "Big Bang", he's doing unbelievably great without the help that he supposedly needed.

Way to go, buddy! Happy Birthday!
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Glad to hear he's doing well. The majority of the problems Aspies have are not with the condition itself, but with the secondary costs that families and others impose when an Aspie doesn't act as they desire. Sounds like you've done things right!
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
As an aside, you mention how Freudian ideas continue to dominate TV. I think that's because Freudian ideas took a deep and strong hold on Hollywood people in general. Furthermore, these ideas were very popular among liberals, who make up the bulk of Hollywood. Who knows how long it will take these discredited ideas to leave Hollywood.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
My problem is that asperger's was becoming synonymous with intelligence. Can a dumb person exhibit the is same tendencies?
Not according to tv.

In the 'chicken and egg' philosophical argument, asperger's seemed to have become a condition which shaped intelligence, rather than being a derived good.

Probably for the best that they did take it out of the dsm.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Yes, Aspies can be of normal intelligence, but the majority are brighter intellectually, apparently because the cerebral cortex grows faster than normal. This may also be why the connections from the amygdala, thalamus, and other emotion processing centers to the cerebral cortex are seen to be fewer in many tensor diffusion MRIs.

If the cerebral cortex neurons are around, and making connections, before the axons from the amydala, etc. reach out to make contact, then there are fewer receptor sites left when axons from the amygdala, etc. show up on the normal schedule. This would slow the transfer of info about the emotional cues that are the majority of social communication in "the social dance" so many on the Spectrum have so much trouble with.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
take a look at temple grandin's new book "The Autistic Brain." it details this diagnostic change, and others, remarkably well.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The first Asperger character on TV as a regular cast member was on "Boston Legal." Christian Clemenson played "Jerry Espenson."
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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