Autism awareness. Aspergers no more.

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Dr. Hans Asperger.

The year after I retired from teaching in 2012, the the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5 (DSM5) did away with the category of Asperger’s Syndrome.

I taught in a school in a small district. For reasons mainly having to do with resources, the school district sent most of the town’s students who had certain specific identified special needs, including autism spectrum disorder, to our school.

I am proud of what we did in response, which included the practice of full inclusion of students with special needs in classrooms with typical students as often as possible. It was almost always possible.

In the years since I retired, I have heard that the district’s practice of clustering special needs students at one school ended. I don’t know if inclusion is the practice in all the schools that students in my old district attend.

I hope so.

When I taught, Asperger’s Syndrome was still designated as a distinct condition. Now it has been folded into autism spectrum disorder since the 2013 DSM5.

I was thinking about this because April has been designated as Autism Awareness Month.

The Autism Awareness Month symbol is a puzzle ribbon.

There is debate about the symbol for people with autism as a puzzle. 

As a teacher and a person who isn’t autistic I have never been comfortable with the puzzle symbol for autism. I believe that all of my students are a kind puzzle to adults.

I observed that in my inclusive art room it often seemed to me that the differences among students on the autism spectrum were often as varied as between any one of them and a random typical student or among typical students. Classrooms are made up of children, all of whom are on a spectrum of interest, ability and personality. The puzzle for a teacher is figuring out what those interests, abilities and personalities are.

I know that labels in the DSM5 have implications for resources, funding and implementation of special education laws.

There is always a battle by parents and teachers for adequate resources.

However, having read Edith Sheffer’s column in the New York Times yesterday, I’m glad they did away with the name if not the category of Asperger’s Syndrome.

According to Sheffer, Dr. Hans Asperger was a Nazi.

The labeling of children as having the characteristics named for Asperger often led to their death in Nazi psychiatric hospitals such as Am Spiegelgrund, in Vienna.

One of his patients, 5-year-old Elisabeth Schreiber, could speak only one word, “mama.” A nurse reported that she was “very affectionate” and, “if treated strictly, cries and hugs the nurse.” Elisabeth was killed, and her brain kept in a collection of over 400 children’s brains for research in Spiegelgrund’s cellar.

One of the unintended results of the decision to do away with the diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome in the DSM5 is that we know longer honor Dr. Asperger by naming a condition after him.


12 thoughts on “Autism awareness. Aspergers no more.

  1. It would have been better to give Asperger’s a new name and not folded it into Autism. The DSM 5 criteria make it hard to diagnose many of the formerly Aspergers students with Autism. And mislabeling a spectrum student as emotionally disturbed, or language impaired or nothing makes it hard for students to get the help they need at school.

    I applaud the intent of your blog on this subject but would have preferred a different avenue to get rid of the label.

  2. Hello Mr. Klonsky,

    I have a child who has this diagnosis and have been an activist for fair treatment for a long time. I appreciate the sentiment you are going for in your post. As a parent of several and someone surrounded by kids with various special needs, I 100% agree with you on the ‘puzzle piece’ aspect. There’s a lot of things that’s wrong/off with the “Awareness” campaign for Autism, including the little puzzle ribbon itself. There’s a huge network of Persons with Autism/Autistic activists around the world working hard to update these things and educate those who don’t understand.

    However, Dr. Asperger’s case is more complicated than ‘he was a Nazi’. I would love it if anyone interested would take a look at Steve Silberman’s Ted Talk here: There’s a lot we don’t know, including the history of the diagnosis.

    As a parent of a child with the diagnosis, I have been accused of a lot of things, including being cold/unloving of my child that I might have made him “the way he is”. I’ve had medical professionals currently working in the state of IL tell me that his ‘unfortunate case’ was ‘likely’ caused by vaccines. There’s nothing at all ‘wrong’ with my kid, he’s awesome and I look forward to each day, no matter how difficult. While the science is in a huge state of flux over Autism, I know it wasn’t vaccines. I also know the historical situation between Dr. Connors and Dr. Asperger is very complicated. The full scale of the facts fit no neat and tidy box, like the folks the diagnosis is supposed to classify.

    Thank so much for reading, for your activism and how hard you work to keep us all informed. I hope this is taken in the spirit with which it’s offered, simply to educate.

    Kindest regards,

  3. Fred, your former district has practically dismantled the special ed program as it was when you retired. Students with special needs are placed in the general education classroom as much as possible, and only a rare few spend any time in a special education classroom. Special Education teachers “co-teach” with a general education classroom teacher, and often these students have a one-on-one assistant if there is a need for it. As much as I believe that special needs students should be in “the least restrictive environment,” I think some of our students are being underserved and would benefit from instruction outside the general ed classroom. Every educator knows that one approach doesn’t fit all. By the way, the district has decreased its special ed population from 30% to 14% over the last few years. Thirty percent was probably much too high, and now it is very difficult to get an IEP for a student. On the other hand, students receive “interventions” to address learning difficulties. At one time, people moved into the district to take advantage of our special ed program. Now they are demanding services be restored to their children and are sitting on a committee to oversee the changes, after the former special ed director “retired” in December after an unpopular plan for next year was revealed.

  4. Being a retired counselor and grand parent of a student on the “spectrum” I very much appreciate any and all understanding of what makes us different. “You’re different just like everybody else.”

  5. As a person with Mild ASD, I wish we had a different word than Autism to describe us. This word is very powerful, and anyone who has seen severely autistic children will never be able to disassociate that image and the word. In fact, I still use Asperger Syndrome, and then explain – until the DSM XXVIII will come up with a better definition.

  6. I do wish they had just changed the name and not just combined it with all other forms of autism. I had never really thought about Hans Asperger being a Nazi, but it does make sense considering the time period and where he was from. Very sad.

  7. In all seriousness…I imagine if everyone were alike…the leading cause of death would be boredom?

    Many people fall outside the “normal spectrum”… including Thomas Jefferson and Albert Einstein!

    Normal is not all that it’s cracked up to be?

    Labels on human behavior say more about those who create labels than the labeled?


    1. In our system labels become necessary before extra support is given. So, no label means no needed support. But with the label comes a stigma. That is the dilemma.

  8. Our system is failing before our eyes,eh?

    That may be the actual dilemma?

    #Every living thing needs support

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