06 Feb The Aspergian Model of Medicine (lol)
A pentagon assessment that Vladimir Putin might have a form of Asperger syndrome was all over the news this week. Asperger’s is an autism spectrum disorder that is characterized by difficulties with social interaction and nonverbal communication. It often involves restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests. The Austrian pediatrician, Hans Asperger, who first wrote about the condition in 1944, noted that his patients also exhibited a significant lack of empathy. Like all diagnoses, the definition and construct of Asperger’s has morphed and changed over the years, illustrating that the definition and delineation of these issues exists within a cultural context. For example, Asperger’s was once seen as a disease with a possible genetic basis. According to Wikipedia, “Some researchers and people with Asperger’s have advocated a shift in attitudes toward the view that it is a difference, rather than a disability that must be treated or cured”.
In looking at the practice of Science in relation to Medicine, it struck me as a bit Aspergian the way most doctors approach patients. Like the definition of Asperger’s, medical studies are characterized by “restrictive and repetitive patterns.” Similarly, people who have been labeled as having Asperger’s have trouble reading other people’s emotions. The “normal way” that doctors interact with patients in our culture, especially with pain patients, rarely involves dealing with (or even acknowledging) their emotions. Emotions are difficult to quantify, so they are especially hard to study. Whenever we read about medical studies, we hear about people being held to restrictive patterns, but unless the drugs being tested have to do with “mood disorders,” the emotional state of the patient is rarely considered.
A few months ago, one of my father’s former colleagues in the UNC Psychology Department told me that another colleague of theirs did a study of people with back pain who applied for disability. 100 patients were randomly given, or denied, the designation. For the most part, those who were given disability were still suffering from back pain a year later. The ones who were denied disability had almost all recovered completely. The way we look at situations affects them. If we declare that people have a disability, then it becomes a part of their identity. Perhaps this is partly why people with an Asperger’s designation have advocated that it be seen as difference rather than a disability.