Dear Abby recently referred to autism as a “mental health disorder”  and has posted a clarification.


Abby clarifies that autism is a neurobiological disorder. That term is much less loaded with emotional baggage, since it indicates that the problem is biologically based rather than behavioral or emotional. It is unfortunate that there is still so much stigma and shame attached to mental illness, but there is still a very strong predilection in American culture to assign moral blame to emotional and behavioral disorders. Although many critics want to blame our Puritan ancestors for this cultural tendency, I trace it to the 19th century “self-help” movement that valorized the self-made man.  Samuel Smiles, the author of  the 1882 best-seller Self-Help, emphasized that each person needs to master himself in order to be successful. He emphasized hard work, thrift, duty, perserverence, and other character traits as the key to success, and claimed that the person who cultivated these traits could prosper no matter how oppressed he was by outward circumstances or cultural institutions. The debate still rages between those who blame cultural oppression for societal ills, and those who blame lack of personal responsibility.  But autism falls under neither of these extremes – it is not a result of social oppression nor of self-indulgence. The American predilection to see any problem as stemming from one of these two sources causes much misunderstanding and frustration….