One of the most heated debates in psychological circles focuses on the distinction between difference and disorder. Part of the reason this is such a hot topic is because the two terms are viewed very differently and can have a major impact on a person’s life. Do my unique behavioral quirks make me different, or do I suffer from some kind of disorder?
In light of this debate, autism is usually held up as an example of a disorder that should really be considered a difference. Behaviorally, autism (Autism Spectrum Disorder) is characterized by social awkwardness and problems communicating. Having a set routine can often facilitate life for a person with ASD, and they also might develop a very specific interest in moving objects, numbers, and symbols. Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen, one of the front-runners and pioneers in autism research, has even suggested that the behavior of those with ASD actually bestows something of a mathematical or scientific advantage because of their ability to focus for long periods on recurring patterns found in every day life.
So, why consider it a disorder? Putting aside the argument that something has gone ‘wrong’ in the development of their brain, autistic individuals can live very fulfilling lives, be very productive, and don’t do anybody else any harm. It is this last point that I would like to pick on when considering disorder versus difference.
When it comes to doing other people harm, there are at least two disorders that we cannot promote to the category of difference.
Psychopathy and pedophilia.
Nobody has any problem saying that there is something wrong with individuals afflicted with these disorders. Psychopathy and pedophilia can result in very harmful and destructive behaviors, and we know that the brains of these individuals are different to a normal person’s brain. A psychopath and a pedophile can no more change their lifestyle than an autistic person can change theirs. The crucial difference here is that the behavior of autistic individuals does not tend to infringe upon the rights of others. For a condition to be stuck as a disorder, therefore, requires the diagnostic criteria to contain harmful behaviors.
Difference, therefore is ultimately a social and legal choice.