Here's how it starts:
I recently ran across the term ‘happy autism’ in a book I was reading (which, of course, I’ve now forgotten the title of). Essentially, the author used this term to describe his autistic child, who clearly 1) met all three components of the so-called ‘autism triad’, and 2) was generally very happy and content most of the time.
That immediately rang a bell with me, and I do love bell-ringing! Joy doesn't generally fit the prevailing child-with-autism stereotype, an image that perhaps entails a blank-faced, unresponsive kiddo either rocking silently in a corner or engaging in disruptive, self-injurious behavior. Not that she doesn't get wrapped up in her stimmy activities, and we've had some effort to keep her safe from herself too at times! However, on the whole, she's a sunny child with an irresistable laugh, and we end up having to explain the shortcomings of the stereotype to people who wonder why she has the diagnosis she does.
There's actually something dangerously seductive about the term "happy autism" for me, as sweetly as it seems to fit my daughter. The trouble is the wish to find a way to differentiate her from those other kids with autism. You know, the stereotypical ones. See, she's not like them. She's happy. She's in a different part of the hierarchy, y'know?
Tim points to other modifiers that do something similar (high-functioning, mild, moderate, severe), even though they're not part of the official diagnostic criteria.
In our informal search to categorize and quantify, we end up creating new boxes, new artificial separations, each of which can bring its own damaging value-judgments.
I know that we need language in which to talk about diagnoses and conditions and experiences. I don't envy the team that's working on the new definition of autism for the upcoming edition of the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual (DSM V). The new definition will surely draw the formal boxes in a different manner than they are formally drawn now. I hope that they will get closer to getting it right. If we knew what right was.
Meanwhile, we're back to the tension between the myth of fingerprints (they're all the same!) and the n of 1 (every last one is unique). So I've got a new term for my original, broke-the-mold kiddo. It's all hers, uses her name even!
(Seriously, if you haven't done so yet, go read Tim's post. He's good.)