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Andrew Solomon: Illness or Identity

Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity, by Andrew Solomon. New York: Scribner, 2012.

by Matthew Tiffany

Andrew Solomon is the author of the novel A Stone Boat and The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, which won the 2001 National Book Award, among other prizes, and was a Pulitzer finalist. He has just come out with a monumental work, Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity.

On a personal level, I especially liked the chapter on autism, having worked for years with autistic children. There’s been much debate on its definition and boundaries. What is your take on this?

I think this is really a debate about terminology. The people who argued for removing the Asperger’s diagnosis from the DSM observed, correctly, that there is no bright line between autism and Asperger’s. But there is also no clear line between autism and eccentricity, or autism and mathematical ability. In the popular imagination, Asperger’s is geekiness, and autism involves nonverbal children who bang their heads against the wall, but there’s a wide spectrum of symptoms and it’s hard to say exactly who is higher-functioning than whom. Is someone with full use of language but no idea what is of interest to the people with whom he is conversing really more disabled than someone with no language but better social instincts? I don’t particularly champion the line as previously drawn between Asperger’s and so-called “classic autism,” but I think that by lumping everyone together, we do the population a grave disservice, because the diagnosis now applies to so many people with such varied needs. Medical progress is evidenced by nuance, and this is a means of sacrificing such subtlety to a gross generality. If the old categories were weak, they required further refinement, not elimination.

(To read the full article, please visit Shelf Awareness.)