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Shadow, Borderline, and Autism-Like Personalities - Where Will the Labeling End?

By July 18, 2008

There seems to be no doubt that autism is related to genetics and heredity.

A new study from the University of North Carolina finds that "some parents of children with autism evaluate facial expressions differently than the rest of us – and in a way that is strikingly similar to autistic patients themselves."

The press release from the University of North Carolina states: "Based on psychological testing, 15 of the parents were classified as being socially aloof.... This manifests as a tendency not to prefer interactions with others, not to enjoy 'small talk' for the sake of the social experience and to have few close friendships involving sharing and mutual support," said Piven, senior author of the study, Sarah Graham Kenan professor of psychiatry in the UNC School of Medicine and director of the newly established Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities. "This characteristic is really a variation of normal and not associated with any functional impairment."

This finding, in itself, is interesting... and it seems to support a long-standing theory that autistic traits can be inherited.<p> What disturbs me about this study is not the actual finding, but rather the language used in media coverage, and the implication by the media that ANY deviation from an implied norm is somehow suspect and possibly even pathological.

For example, take a look at these headlines:

The term "aloof," when used by Dr. Piven, is a technical term referring to a personality type defined on a test. His focus was on eye gaze, and his conclusions were biological. But the headlines don't explain this - they use the term "aloof" in its usual sense. The Merriam Webster Dictionary describes "aloof" as meaning "removed or distant either physically or emotionally." In other words, the headlines imply that anyone who is emotionally removed or distant may well be an "autism carrier!"

Over the last few years, terms like "shadow autism," "borderline autism" have slowly made their way into the news. As a result, traits such as shyness, social anxiety, or even a preferance for solitude, quiet, or independent pursuits are slowly but surely being pathologized. Now, "aloof" parents are being presented in the media as likely carriers of full blown autism.

At a certain point, it seems to me that we will find a huge portion of humanity fits the criteria for some form of "autistic-like" disorder... a disturbing trend. Is it possible that the world we've created for ourselves and the normal breadth of human personalities just don't mesh very well?

July 18, 2008 at 6:14 pm
(1) Marziah says:

It does sound a bit like “refrigerator mother” when it’s put that way now, doesn’t it?

July 19, 2008 at 9:04 pm
(2) Debi says:

It seems we’ve been upgrading computers and machines and downgrading our humanity and individuality for so long it is hard to spot until the finger is pointed at us.

July 21, 2008 at 2:31 am
(3) Sara says:

I think it is absolutely wonderful that someone “official” has finally publicly recognized that such traits as shyness and social-cue confusion are genetic. If at least the educated people were aware that these traits are not a result of choice or bad experience, maybe they would give us less of a hard time about it and life would be so much better for all of us. I personally am soooo tired of people saying I shouldn’t be so shy or let my imagination run away with me, and not understanding what everyone around me seems to know by instinct and no one helping me to get into whatever is going on. I have been explaining for years (ever since I learned what Asperger’s Syndrome is and that it explains all the social difficulties I’ve experienced since childhood) that I have an autistic personality, and that seems to produce a bit of understanding and respect. My poor children also do not quite qualify for the official Asperger’s label, but they sure suffer from misunderstandings on their part and other people’s about aspects of themselves they have no choice about. And I can trace a long list of relatives who were considered odd or eccentric who fit the spctrum descriptions. All the advice about helping people on the Autism Spectrum helps us, but we don’t qualify for any official programs.

I have thought from the beginning of this learning adventure that it is a crying shame that the people who get the help are the ones who are bad-off enough to trouble other people but don’t necessarily consider themselves in need of help, but those of us who are troubled about ourselves and struggle with “pretending to be normal” get no sympathy or help. The Autism Spectrum IS a SPECTRUM, so of course half of all people on earth will have traits on the positive end of the spectrum; and I’m not so sure that God Himself isn’t at the very positive end of it like a pot of Gold at the end of the rainbow (how often does HE speak words out loud to anyone?)! Most of what comes out of Him is actions, and most of those are inscrutable to most people.

Thanks for letting me “speak” my mind to a crowd that cares.

July 21, 2008 at 9:54 am
(4) Sara S says:

I agree with “Sara” wholeheartedly, and hope to see a day when Autism is merely just another way to describe a certain personality type, much like “shy”, “outgoing”, etc.

It seems perfectly logical that the parents of autistic children would have traits themselves, whether or not they have enough traits to qualify for a diagnosis. Research is showing that Autism is genetic, after all. That hardly makes the parents “refrigerator mothers” – just carriers of a set of traits.

July 21, 2008 at 10:52 am
(5) Martha says:

1692, Salem, Massachusetts: “Is EVERYBODY a witch?!”

2008, Anywhere, USA: “Is EVERYBODY autistic?!”

July 21, 2008 at 11:12 am
(6) Denise says:

My high functioning son was diagnosed late, exactly because I assumed he was shy, didn’t like social situations and preferred routine and sameness just like his mother. I wouldn’t consider myself in anyway autistic, but there are characteristics that do apply.

July 22, 2008 at 4:21 am
(7) Carol RB says:

Which side of the spectrum does this aspie Momma play from..IN the middle of it all. My pockets are getting shallower; nerves frayed,often feel like MOM is an island. God gave me a mission when my son was born. Like my rebellious 60′s, Autism might be the keyword for the next revolution. I think I have hired, fired , rehired, sued and lost doctors,counselors, tutors, family members, and helpful friends and habilitators to lawyers with in a 500 mile radius. My son is learning and progressing , while increasingly less anxious and happier so he might just fit right into the “social ways of his peers” and school systems pidgeon hole shape. It feels like the medis is trying to dummy down the public in general.Not his Asperger’s by Proxy Mom.

July 22, 2008 at 6:24 am
(8) veronica says:

My favorite quote says it all
“No one is fully autistic or fully NT. Even God has his autistic moments, that’s why the planets spin”

September 9, 2008 at 8:07 pm
(9) sandra fairbank says:

I am a mum who has three children, my eldest son nathan who is 18yrs, is haveing great problems copeing with every day tasks he was given a statement at the very begining of primary school and it stayed with him all the way with him until the end of high school he is now in collage and has one to one surport as he has learning difficulties but i have all ways beleived that it was more, nathan dosent like being around people very much and likes to spend a lot of time on his own he dosent like to use public transport, dosent like going in to shops, dosent give direct eye contact when he talks to people,dosent like people to tell him to many things at once, if any thing needs doing have to tell him what to do in stages,he hasent got a good concentrasion span at all he fixates on certain topics and has a great abilitiey to switch his self of from every thing, as a baby nathan was slow with a lot of things he never crawled e bumb shuffeld and went straight to walking at the age of two he still has some problems now as its as if when he is walking and then wants to run he has to stop walking and tell him self he wants to run i did take him to see the gp but she dident seem that botherd and i dont no were to go from here nathan all so reads and writes very poorley and dosent manage life very well at all please could you offer any advise thank u sandra

October 25, 2008 at 1:25 pm
(10) Klas Wullt says:

Everyone has bit of us in them.
We autists and borderlines are all normal in an different way and are subjectively just as fit and healthy as everyone else.
But Borderlines are suicidial and really suffers.
Autists and borderlines live extremely alienated lives with serious relationship issues.
We are not insane at all.
Except that you totally ignore how extreme personalities we are.
Society and the world is not adapted for us.
For us to just be normal personality types
the entire civilisation needs to change its very basic values.

Our culture doesn’t accept egocentrical, impulsive, control freaks, it doesn’t accept the chaos of borderline nor autistic order.
I have aspergers.
People like me and I knew an borderline who killed herself.
We are extreme people, many likes us and accept us.
Our numbers are growing, we are discovered.
You are right we might be a part of the collectively normality of mankind.
But you have to realise we are really and really extreme.
We can’t survive in society as it is
because we redefine what being social is
and we redefine what emotions mean
and we are an reality that defy how people
think people are.

It’s the people who are diviant who are skilled artists and geniuses.
We are the elite, the elite that is pushed down by the masses the moment we are born.
We are called insande to be controlled
and we are driven insane.

We exist, people!. To bad to say but we are not just an “label”.
It’s not labeling. Sorry.

July 16, 2011 at 11:50 am
(11) Mary says:

to author Lisa Jo Rudy:
You ask a smart question: “Is it possible that the world we’ve created for ourselves and the normal breadth of human personalities just don’t mesh very well?”

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