Psychiatrist Deems Autism “Fashionable”

The DSM-IV is the diagnostic manual that defines all psychiatric disorders. After much controversy, Asperger’s Syndrome is now being included in the DSM-5 (2013 edition) as an autism spectrum disorder, relinquishing its once separate diagnosis. Language delays are no longer among the criteria for the new ASD and questions remain as to how mental challenges such as Fragile-X syndrome will be treated.

Dr. Allen Frances pioneered the diagnostic “bible” and is unhappy about the pending changes, going so far as to claim that the autism epidemic is a by-product of over-diagnosis. According to Frances, autism is now a “fashionable” disorder popularized by movie stars like Jenny McCarthy, Internet advocacy, support groups and media coverage. He went so far as to say: 

"Autism is no longer seen as an extremely disabling condition, and many creative and normally eccentric people have discovered their inner autistic self.

My hackles went up at that, because he seems to be confusing acceptance of autism with its glorification. If he perused the newspapers and kept pace with the ongoing cases in which individuals with autism are discriminated against and even persecuted, I think he’d lose that tone. It’s not like a diagnosis ushers someone into a magical world in which all their needs are addressed and they are then considered cool. On the contrary, services are scant and schools are ill-equipped to handle the disorder. 

One thing that really gets to me as the mother of high functioning twins is the characterization of Asperger’s as "mild" because it makes it sound innocuous and not the heartbreaking ordeal that it actually is. The Catch-22 is that while individuals with Asperger’s are more functional, their competency qualifies them to feel more vulnerable and isolated. Mainstreamed, they still live apart and know it.

Not wanting to believe that this is all there is to his story, I did further research on Dr. Frances and found a piece by him that cast him in a more thoughtful light. For example, he points out that the proliferation of diagnostic labels is a bonanza for the pharmaceutical industry, who get to peddle more drugs for every articulated condition in the manual. It lead me to appreciate the timing of the drug companies now eager to market once off-label anti-psychotic drugs to everyone on the autism spectrum, as I wrote about in a previous article. For instance, Frances indicated that the proliferation of new and unnecessary labels in behavioral problems leads to over-medication that culminates in medically induced, full-blown conduct disorder.

The diagnostic manual was Dr. Allen’s baby and he’s now upset that a new wave of clinicians have taken custody of it. That’s understandable. He also has valid objections. But those objections aren’t going to be heard and appreciated if he doesn’t craft his words more carefully.


Susan Moffitt is the mother of high functioning twin sons with autism. When not advocating for them, she pursues her multiple creative passions of fine art, piano composition and writing. She is the author of "Upstream," a compilation of poetry, fiction and anecdotal tales that deal with raising twins with autism. For more information, visit

8 Responses to Psychiatrist Deems Autism “Fashionable”

  1. AdrieWg says:

    Fashionable. Really. He does need to be extremely cautious about his words, because my ‘mild’ seemingly normal looking son is going to be doing battle with misconceptions his whole life, and the media will sound-bite this quote for it’s salacious appeal to keep viewers and readers attentive, without expanding on this doctor’s intent, which the author of this article did.

  2. Tara Ham says:

    Sadly with this article it almost makes it sound by using the word “fashionable” that this something that we wanted for out children, loved ones or ourselves. This is simply not the case, knowing that my little boy will forever be impacted by Autism is overwhelming at times. This is not something chosen, the media coverage supports groups.. Well this is bcuz for the hundred years before now no one even knew what it was called. So shame on us for putting in the spotlight? No, shame in those who came before us and didn’t 1 in 110 children have this. It’s not cool or popular, it’s difficult, sad sometimes and scary. If we don’t keep this with full attention it will be forgotten. “Fashionable” is not the word to use while discussing this disorder.

  3. deb says:

    I have Asperger’s, and I would definitely characterize myself as “creative and eccentric”. However, for me, “discovering my inner autistic self” meant finding out why I was called lazy or retarded every day in public school, and why I’d had so much trouble finding and keeping a job in spite of a very high IQ. I have several neurological conditions related to autism, but until I had children of my own I didn’t know that there were names for any of them. I only knew that something was horribly wrong with me.

    It’s not that I’m feeling particularly “fashionable” these days (and indeed, that word has almost never been used to describe me :) ), but that I’ve worked hard to climb out of the dark pit of undiagnosed disability I was born into. I’ve learned to accept myself (and to expect others to accept me) the way I am instead of trying to keep my confused, shameful secret life to myself.

  4. Susan says:

    Thank you all for your thoughtful and poignant remarks.


  5. jo ashline says:

    Fabulously written. My own son is severely autistic but I have had the absolute joy of getting to know children on varying parts of this complex spectrum and I agree with you wholeheartedly. The idea that Autism is the disorder du jour takes away from the very real and devestating reality of what it means to parent a child who is affected by it in some way.

    We are a long way from true awareness, and unfortunately, the autism community in and of itself is often divided, which makes us a vulnerable target for criticism and judgement.

    At the end of the day, only those of us who are faced with advocating for our loved ones and live in the reality of what autism (any variation of it) truly means, know that calling it “fashionable,” especially by someone of such professional stature, is irresponsible and dangerous. Not to mention complete Bullhonkey.

  6. Susan says:

    Well put!


  7. Lisa Jo Rudy says:

    Just as a note: Asperger syndrome has only been in existence as a diagnostic category under the DSM IV – that is, since 1994. During that time, is has ALWAYS been included as ONE OF the Pervasive Development Disorders which make up the autism spectrum.

    So Asperger syndrome was never a “stand-alone” diagnosis separate and discrete from the autism spectrum.

    Many people who are now diagnosed with Asperger syndrome today will still be diagnosed within the autism spectrum with the new DSM 5. BUT they will receive an autism spectrum diagnosis and a functional/severity modifier – rather than an Asperger syndrome diagnosis. The definition of autism, in fact, will probably be more inclusive of high functioning individuals than ever before, since there are no criteria relating to language use.

    I wanted to clarify that point, because while the NAME Asperger syndrome will disappear (and that may be a very important issue!), the FACT of high functioning autism will not.

    Lisa Rudy, Guide to Autism

  8. Susan says:

    I should’ve said “stand alone title” which was the actual intention of my meaning.

    One word makes a big difference. Thanks.

    Susan Moffitt

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