Novel interventions using virtual reality to aid individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) handle common scenarios may include helping youngsters

How subjective are diagnoses of autism?

Unbelievably subjective to the point of being almost useless.

The word “autism” has virtually no meaning at this point in time save for an indication that something is wrong neurologically.

Case in point: I have an autistic brother and my friend has an autistic brother. My brother has a paid job as a sports announcer (his favorite thing to do). My friend’s brother cannot speak. My brother craves friendship. My friend’s brother has no apparent social interest. My brother is otherwise relatively healthy. My friend’s brother has grand mal seizures on a regular basis. Again, both of them are diagnosed as “autistic,” even though they clearly suffer from two completely different neurological disorders.

The situation is made even worse by the conflation of two additional factors: the vague definition of Asberger’s Syndrome (which is increasingly common as a diagnosis, sometimes overlapping with “autism,” but generally regarded as “autism lite” and also different enough to the point where some individuals are even proud of their Asberger’s); and the use of the term “spectrum,” implying a one-dimensional spectrum to measure all of this.

Neither autism nor Asberger’s Syndrome exist along any kind of single clear one-dimensional spectrum. The notion that they somehow do is completely arbitrary and bogus and actually counterproductive as it encourages medical professionals and patients alike to conceptualize a variety of very different diseases in a falsely linked manner that leads to poor treatment decisions. It’s also likely that anyone claiming to be “proud” of their autism might easily offend someone who either has or has cared for an individual with a severe case of a similarly-labeled neurological disease. Certain manifestations of “autism” are not something anyone should be proud of.

Essentially, saying that someone has autism today in 2012 is a bit like saying that someone had “the consumption” in 1912. It’s mysterious and vague and generally not helpful.

Based on my own observations, what’s worth measuring are these factors:

  • Can the person make use of basic motor skills;
  • Can the person excel academically (reading comprehension, writing, math);
  • Can the person take care of themselves on their own (cooking, finances, job);
  • Can the person develop meaningful friendships;
  • Can the person behave in a manner free of extreme mood swings (anger, mania).

So there you might have a five-dimensional spectrum, but that’s not really what anyone is talking about when they say “Autistic Spectrum Disorder.” No matter what you call it, though, the diagnosis means far less than someone’s reality at the end of the day.