The word "Autism" has become romanticized, occasionally glorified, in public discussions of the neurological disorder. It is literally being stripped of its meaning as a diagnostic label of a mental disorder and is being turned into a different way of thinking, a way of life, a culture. Maybe it is time to start thinking about dropping the use of the term autism in the DSM, abandon the Autism Spectrum Disorder concept and replace it with a more informative, less romanticized, less politicized name ... Synaptic Disorder.
At its most extreme the glorification of autism spectrum disorders has seen historical talents and geniuses from Mozart to Einstein "diagnosed" long after their deaths as having been "autistics". One of the silliest of such fantasies is the speculation that Jesus Christ was autistic. At the other end of the stigma spectrum are those aided by the American Psychiatric Association, and its dilution of the concept of autism disorders in the DSM-IV, who want the world to believe that autism and intellectual disability are unrelated conditions that are "coincidentally" present in 75-80% of those with Autistic Disorder and between 40 and 50% of all persons with autism spectrum disorders.
Maybe it is time to consider abandoning use of the term "autism" altogether and replace it with a new, more informative, and less politicized term .... synaptic disorder. In his December 2009 Simons Initiative on Autism and the Brain Lecture at MIT, "Autism, What Do We Know? What Do We Need?", Dr. Thomas Insel, Director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) acknowledged that autism is not fully explained by genetics. It is also necessary to consider environmental factors ( a point made 10 years earlier by Teresa Binstock and emphasized by many autism authorities including Dr. Irva Hertz-Picciotto). Dr. Insel also discussed the matter of how we describe autism disorders and whether we are talking about these disorders in ways that are helpful to understanding them biologically as summarized on the MIT World review of his lecture:
"The formal definition of autism includes three main components: deficits in social behavior, abnormal language, and repetitive or restricted (motor) behaviors (hand flapping, for instance). But it can also include a host of other associated features like seizures, mental retardation, GI disorders, dysmorphic appearance, and regression.
Insel compares talking about autism as a single disorder to talking about epilepsy or fever or chest pain as a single disorder. Discussions must include understanding details at many levels—genetic, environmental, cellular, behavioral, systems. While researchers may now increasingly refer to autisms (plural) or think of the disorder along a spectrum, these categories may cause more problems in getting to the underlying biology of the disorder. Current research suggests that autism is a developmental brain disorder, specifically a disorder of synapses." (Bold emphasis added-HLD)
Given Dr. Insel's view, as Director of the NIHM, speaking at MIT, that autism is a synaptic disorder would it not be prudent for the DSM-5 team to hold off on another transformation of the pervasive developmental disorders, already spoken of as autism spectrum disorders, until the research confirms (or refutes) the view that autism is a disorder of synapses? Dr. Insel has indicated that describing autism as a disorder of synapses, synaptic disorder, may be more helpful in getting to the underlying biology of the disorder.
Synaptic Disorder instead of Autism Spectrum Disorder? Surely it should at least be considered by the American Psychiatric Association as it once again revises the DSM.