Elon Musk Says He Has Asperger's Syndrome—But Is Asperger's Still a Diagnosis? Here's What Experts Told Us
Elon Musk made a surprising announcement while hosting Saturday Night Live over the weekend: He has Asperger's syndrome.
Musk slipped his diagnosis into his opening speech, after pointing out that he doesn't have a lot of variation in his tone when he speaks. He then said that he's "the first person with Asperger's to host SNL" before joking that he's "at least the first to admit it."
Plenty of people pointed out on Twitter that Asperger's syndrome is an outdated diagnosis. "I always feel a little queasy about having to use 'Asperger' with some older/less informed healthcare providers when they are not up to date with the current terms," one person wrote. "I mean, if you just Google for 10 minutes, you get a good glimpse of all the baggage and problems of that word." Another simply wrote that, "Asperger's is no longer a diagnosis."
But what is Asperger's syndrome exactly, and is it still a diagnosis? Here's what you need to know.
What is Asperger's syndrome?
Asperger's syndrome is a developmental disorder that's part of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). ASD, in case you're not familiar with it, is a group of neurological conditions that can cause impairment in language and communication skills, along with repetitive or restrictive patterns.
The biggest symptom of Asperger's syndrome is a child's obsessive interest in a single object or topic, NINDS says. Children with Asperger's syndrome want to know everything about that particular topic, and they don't want to talk about much else. Other symptoms can include:
- Repetitive routines
- Peculiarities in speech and language
- Socially and emotionally inappropriate behavior
- Inability to successfully interact with peers
- Problems with nonverbal communication
Children with Asperger's syndrome are often isolated because of poor social skills and have a history of developmental delays, NINDS says.
Is Asperger's syndrome still a diagnosis?
Technically, it's not. The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) removed Asperger's syndrome in 2013 and folded it into the umbrella term of autism spectrum disorder. "At least in the US and anywhere that uses the DSM-5, Asperger's is no longer an official diagnosis," Christopher Hanks, MD, an internal medicine physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center who treats autistic disorder, tells Health.
Instead, the condition that was previously just known as autism was expanded to become autism spectrum disorder. "The DSM describes autism spectrum disorder now as being 'mild, moderate, or severe,' although the criteria for distinguishing among these three levels is somewhat vague and has not yet been validated," David Mandell, ScD, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine and Director of the Penn Center for Mental Health, tells Health.
There are a few reasons why Asperger's is no longer a diagnosis. First, it can be hard to distinguish it from autism. "Even highly experienced and skilled clinicians were unable to agree on cases," Mandell says. "That is, clinicians were not reliable in differentiating between Asperger's and autism. Part of the reason for this is that the presentation of autistic people can change dramatically with age and over time."
Asperger's was also removed as a diagnosis to "clarify that autism is a broad spectrum, and that it can manifest in different ways in individuals," Dr. Hanks says.
But there also was "increasing evidence" that Hans Asperger, the pediatrician after whom the condition was named, was a Nazi and a "tool of the Nazi party," Mandell says, adding, "researchers and clinicians in the field were justifiably eager to distance themselves from his horrible legacy."
But Mandell says "there was a lot of controversy among scientists, clinicians, and advocates when Asperger's was removed from the DSM." Why? Some scientists and doctors wanted more time to study the disorder and distinguish it from autistic disorder. That, Mandell says, is why some autistic people still refer to themselves as "Aspies."
Asperger's syndrome vs. autism
Asperger's syndrome and autism are now considered the same diagnosis—that is, they are part of the autism spectrum disorder.
Asperger's syndrome used to be viewed as different from ASD because people with Asperger's have average or higher-than-average language and intelligence levels, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Of course, if you received a diagnosis of Asperger's syndrome, and it's one that you identify with, it's fine for you to use whatever term you choose. From a medical standpoint, Dr. Hanks says that the term Asperger's "should not be used at this point." But, he adds, "there are many people who identify as having Asperger's who have latched onto that. If someone introduces themselves to me and says, 'I have Asperger's,' it's not my place to say they don't."
Mandell says there are many other "complex" problems around ASD that need to be addressed. he wonders if "we have done a disservice to people by saying that individuals who may have significant challenges, but are employed, in relationships and living independently, have the same condition as people who have only a few words, are self-injurious, and require 24-hour care. Changing the name in the DSM is not going to fix that."
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