University of Georgia professor explains his ‘Asperger’s Advantage’ and disabling assumption of disorder

This is a fascinating look at disorders and disabilities by a University of Georgia professor who says his own include Asperger’s, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive thinking.

Peter Smagorinsky, who has written some wonderful education pieces for this blog, says this triad of conditions, while a drawback in some areas of life, gives him an edge in his work life.

By Peter Smagorinsky

People considered “mentally ill” were, until recent generations, confined to institutions where they would be out of society’s sight and mind. As we have become more humane as a nation, and as understanding of human difference has helped to provide better life opportunities for those who are not considered “normal,” schools have enrolled far more students who once would not have been allowed inside their doors.

I have, in the last 20 years or so, taken a much greater interest in such people. In fact, I am among them, as are several people in my family. Various people in my gene pool have been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, Tourette’s syndrome, chronic anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive thinking, oppositional-defiance, and other conditions. I suspect that many readers can say the same.

I have written a good deal of late in academic journals about “neurodivergence,” the wide range of ways of being in the world produced by the neurological system. The issues are decidedly complex and have taken me years to begin to grasp, and I am still learning. In this essay I wish to discuss one thing about which I have become confident: the disabling notion of “disorder.”

UGA professor Peter Smagorinsky with With doctoral advisee Stephanie Shelton at the 2016 graduation.

UGA professor Peter Smagorinsky with doctoral advisee Stephanie Shelton at the May graduation.

When I listed syndromes and conditions earlier in this essay, I did not use the term “disorder.” Technically, these terms are often accompanied by either “disorder” or “disability,” as in Autism Spectrum Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and so on. I hope to persuade readers that using such phrasings serves to perpetuate the notion that being different from most people represents a form of disorder.

I’ll confine my attention here to a few conditions that are assumed to be, ever and always, disorders: ways of being that produce poor and threatening functioning in society. The Autism Society of America states that Asperger’s Disorder is synonymous with Asperger’s Syndrome. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is typically known as OCD; and Anxiety Disorder has its own Wikipedia entry.

In part because of the ways in which these conditions are named, people tend to believe that those who are made up in these ways have a stable, everlasting deficiency, perhaps even a chronic illness, from which they are inevitably said to “suffer.” I don’t wish to suggest that many people do not indeed suffer from conditions like depression, or that a severe bipolar makeup is just another okay way of being in the world. Although some of my colleagues in the neurodiversity movement would disagree, I can only conclude at this point in my understanding that extreme versions of these makeups can make social life so difficult that they are debilitating in and of themselves.

As one whose neurodivergence includes Asperger’s, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive thinking, however, I disagree with the general view that having this makeup makes me, and those like me, necessarily disordered at all times and in all places. If anything, Asperger’s is about as highly ordered a way of being as is possible. We are oriented to patterns, routines, and other aspects of living highly ordered, often predictable lives. Yet to many, such a life is one of disability and deficiency, and is for all such people in all situations.

I profoundly reject this judgment. As part of my rebellion against this stereotype, I have begun referring to my Asperger’s Advantage, especially when Asperger’s is bundled with my anxiety and obsessive-compulsive thinking. How can three disorders be considered an advantageous order?

First, these conditions are not always an advantage. In some situations, they are indeed disabling. I can’t fly without Xanax, and can’t give public talks without Inderal. I know I’m not alone; every airport I know of is teeming with bars that operate around the clock, with alcohol then freely available in flight; and public speaking is feared more than death itself.

In academia, however, this triad of conditions gives me the advantage that I claim. Researchers who can see patterns and go into meticulous detail without losing focus—traits of Asperger’s—tend to have successful careers in publish-or-perish environments. Those who are anxious are often incapable of leaving matters unfinished or hanging, leading to a disposition to finish tasks promptly and dependably. And obsessive-compulsiveness allows one to stick with a topic, sometimes when others would be more preferable, until a task is done.

As a package, this set of traits is hard to beat if your job security depends on publishing research, as a good part of mine is. The teaching aspect of academia might or might not benefit from such a makeup. Universities have employed many brilliant researchers who have had trouble communicating with students and colleagues, leading me to conclude that people like me will not always make good teachers.

In this sense, whether or not my conditions represent a disorder is entirely a matter of context. Disorder is relational and situational, not absolute and irrevocable, as terminology and everyday assumption suggest. The same makeup might be ideal, or disorder, depending on the environment. Even within one profession, university teaching, one might be considered successful in one area, research, and unsuccessful in another, teaching.

Personally, I’ve been teaching in high schools and universities for the last 40 years. I’ve gotten tenure in Midwestern schools based on my teaching, and tenure in universities based on my research. I don’t say that to boast, only to offer an example of how it’s possible to undertake a teaching life while also embodying neurodivergence.

Put me in a different setting and I might indeed be, if not disordered, at least dysfunctional. I would make a horrid politician, for instance. Beyond the problem of taking drugs constantly to make speeches, I could not engage in the endless pandering and gladhanding that seem required of the job. Asperger’s does not accommodate small talk or an emphasis on social conventions. In this context, I would be an utter failure.

My point here is both simple and complex: “Disorder” is an inappropriate term to attach as a fundamental part of the name of a neurological condition. Whether it’s order or disorder is a matter of how it works in relation to other people and settings. Unless this basic idea becomes better understood, too many people will go through life burdened by a false sense of who they are and what their potential is.

 

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6 comments
Anne K. Ross
Anne K. Ross

I have struggled with the term "disorder" for a long time. I prefer Asperger's Syndrome to the earlier Asperger's Disorder terminology. Maybe the DSM-6 will use a different label: Autism Spectrum. I discuss this briefly in my new book, Beyond Rain Man: What one psychologist learned raising a son on the autism spectrum. www.beyondrainman.com

usethebrainsgodgiveyou
usethebrainsgodgiveyou

My son had an early label of autism.  He was very delayed in communicating, and although he has a high verbal, small talk bugs the heck out of him. He has a lot of attributes that seem Dyslexic. I hear often they are visual thinkers, and "see" their thoughts (visualize),  rather than "hear" them. He loves working with machines, and had a tech degree of a machinist. Should he ever decide to go back to school, I think he could be an engineer.


I gave him one of those silly right brain/left brain tests that were so popular years back, and he came back 95% right brained. (I am 50-50, so he didn't get it from me.)  All of life is a dichotomy at least, sometimes in degrees... right handed/ left handed, male/female, trees/roots, hot/cold...I wonder sometimes if academia would be incomplete without representation of the whole of humanity. It's been said Silicon Valley was representative that way, and why it was so successful.  Just being a good test taker isn't enough...you've got to have the gifts needed in the field, so to speak.


Now, school begins the great divide, where Dyslexic thinking is not rewarded. at all. Yet, some of the greatest thinkers I had in classes, were Dyslexic. Is it more a punishment for being different, for not learning the way a teacher teaches?  He had a teacher one year, I am guessing, was Dyslexic, and it was heaven.

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

Funny about this.  When I was writing my dissertation, my daughter got me a shirt that proclaimed, "I am NOT obsessive! I am NOT obsessive!  I am NOT obsessive!" 

redweather
redweather

Although I get your point, the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) has established guidelines for accommodating individuals with disabilities. Do we need to revisit ADA?

Peter_Smagorinsky
Peter_Smagorinsky

@redweather Redweather, thanks for this suggestion. I think that ADA is better at things like wheelchair ramps than changing public perception about people whose makeup is neurologically divergent from what is considered normal. I checked the ADA website and it turns out that it's always considering modifications; see http://www.ada.gov/newproposed_regs.htm. I'm hoping for something less bureaucratic and formal, which is for the typical person to understand the atypical makeup a little better (and I use "typical" only in the neurological sense, and then only tentatively given how many people seem not to be typical). With this understanding, they might see others in terms of potential instead of deficits. I'm not sure you could do that through legislation, but if you see a way, go for it!