Michael McCreary is at the tail end of a national tour of his standup-comedy show Does This Make My Asperger’s Look Big? when the Straight reaches him in Calgary. The 18-year-old Orangeville, Ontario, resident uses humour not only to help people understand autism spectrum disorder (ASD) but to bring some levity to what he says is a topic that people tiptoe around.
“This is my therapy,” McCreary says on his dad’s cellphone three days before his November 3 appearance in Vancouver. “It’s my opportunity to connect with audiences and make people laugh. I’m offering people permission to laugh. Autism spectrum disorder and Asperger’s are a taboo subject, but we can’t fix a problem if we can’t sit back and laugh at it.
“I want to fight the stigma that comes with Asperger’s,” adds McCreary, who blogs at AspieComic.com and trained under Vancouver’s David Granirer through his Stand Up for Mental Health standup-comedy course. “There’s a stereotype that Aspies don’t get humour, but I want to make people laugh as much as I want to educate them.”
Although McCreary calls himself an “Aspie”, there’s no longer an official diagnosis called Asperger syndrome. The term was phased out by the American Psychiatric Association with the publication of the fifth edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Asperger’s now falls under ASD, having been merged with childhood disintegrative disorder, autistic disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder—not otherwise specified.
Not all health professionals agreed with the APA’s decision (and the ASD entry is just one that has plagued the DSM-5 with controversy since it was published last year). As someone who’s lived with the diagnosis since age five, McCreary says he, too, is bothered by the revocation of the term.
“I don’t speak for everyone, but for me, personally, I do take issue with the idea of lumping it in [with ASD],” he says, noting that his brother was also diagnosed with ASD but a more severe form. “It’s not fair to the ones that are profoundly challenged. It makes some people feel like they’re less capable and others feel like they’re not as severe.”
A whole community of Aspies has sprung up, made up of people who are proud to be part of it. Take the New York City–based Global and Regional Asperger Syndrome Partnership and blogs like Aspie Warrior; Dude, I’m an Aspie; and Musings of an Aspie by Cynthia Kim, author of the just-published Nerdy, Shy, and Socially Inappropriate: A User Guide to an Asperger Life.
Among high-profile individuals with Asperger’s are Dan Aykroyd and Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science and the author of The Way I See It: A Personal Look at Autism & Asperger’s.
Vancouver therapist Noah Susswein, who’s worked in private practice in the Lower Mainland with many families affected by Asperger’s, says the DSM-5’s new definition of ASD caught some people with Asperger’s offguard.
“A lot of folks who identified as Aspies were thinking, ‘What do you mean this condition doesn’t exist? I’ve got it and I’ve formed an identity based on it,’ ” Susswein says in a phone interview. “So there may no longer be a diagnostic term in the DSM, but…that concept may well linger in our culture because it has a life of its own outside the community of [health] professionals.
“A lot of individuals who are diagnosed with Asperger’s see it not as an affliction but as an identity, a way of being, and for a lot of people, getting the diagnosis has been transformative and helpful not because it identifies a deficiency but because it also says: ‘You’re part of a community; there are other folks like you; that’s a way to be in the world, and you can have a rich life just the way you are.’ ”
According to Asperger Syndrome: The Oasis Guide—Advice, Inspiration, Insight, and Hope, From Early Intervention to Adulthood, among the characteristics that distinguish Asperger syndrome from other forms of ASD are normal to above-average intelligence, apparently normal language development, and one or more special interests that dominate attention, conversation, and social interactions. Author Patricia Romanowski Bashe refers to British psychiatrist Lorna Wing’s definition of the condition as being a “triad of impairments affecting social interaction, communication, and imagination, accompanied by a narrow, rigid, and repetitive pattern of activities”.
A range of treatments includes biomedical, behavioural, sensory, and communication programs, as well as other approaches such as therapeutic recreation, acupuncture, and art or music therapy, according to the Autism Canada Foundation.
Susswein says working with people’s strengths and interests helps make treatment more effective.
“If you have a dinosaurs-obsessed kid…how can his passion for dinosaurs be used to help connect with his peers or adults around him?” he says. “It helps to work with the presentation, rather than against it.
“It’s really important not to just see anyone through the diagnostic lens; that’s a common way by which people get underestimated by teachers and parents and underestimate themselves,” he adds. “You can focus on what’s possible and how to maximize those possibilities so that people with that diagnosis can really thrive and flourish.”