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Autism, for the record

Dear Editor,

Autism is not a mental disorder.

The National Institutes of Health defines it as follows: “Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder that affects communication and behavior.” A developmental disorder is not a mental disorder and a mental disorder is not a developmental disorder. For example, people with Down’s Syndrome do not have a mental disorder. Likewise for autism.

The reason I point this out is that the casual reader of your most excellent article of 11/25/19 which includes important advances about autism might infer that because autism is included in the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) that it is a psychiatric disorder. There are plenty of diagnostic entities listed in the DSM. Many are not mental disorders. It would not be accurate to say autism is a mental disorder (or mental illness) and could lead to the wrong impression.

I believe that it is important to point this out because people with autism, like my son and other people I know, read your newspaper carefully and they should not walk away with the impression that they have a mental illness.

And it is of paramount importance to teachers, legal professionals, friends, and neighbors who interact with autistic persons. Your life will be a lot easier when you recognize that the person you are talking to is not mentally ill. He or she is different, sometimes much different, and that can be a beautiful thing, even an enrichment of your personal life. I am not kidding.

God showers us with gifts and autism may be one of them. Imagine you have a newborn son. He does not talk until he is four. He has great difficulty with simple arithmetic and fails geometry miserably. As an adult he appears to be unable to even comb his hair and when his picture gets taken he ruins it by sticking out his tongue.

That was Albert Einstein. This is an extreme example, but illustrative. He was not the only person like this to win the Nobel Prize.

I submit that autism is not a burden. It is a blessing I hope I am worthy of receiving. I am a lucky guy. How are we blessed? People with this developmental difference (I eschew the term “disorder” because many people like this are quite orderly) have been known to go on to become CEO’s, scientists, artists, actors, doctors, and even leaders that inspire us to be better.

Regardless of what you may have heard in the popular mass media, these people do not have a mental disorder. They have a communication difficulty that most of them labor continuously to overcome. We all strive to communicate better, don’t we? Maybe it is what makes us human, I don’t know. I add this letter to the record in that effort.

To reiterate, just because a diagnosis is in the DSM does not mean it is a mental illness. That would be a communication error.

Sincerely,

Christopher Lareau, D.O.,

Warren

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