Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Diagnosis by Proxy and other Logical Fallacies

In the 9/16/05 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Mikita Brottman writes an opinion piece titled "Nutty Professors." In it she makes an argument about the essential inapropriateness of accommodating to potential behavioral issues that she identifies as accompanying Asperger's Syndrome (AS).

It would be one thing if Ms. Brottman were a neuropsychologist or psychiatrist in the autism field. Actually, according to her biography, she is "a professor of language, literature, and culture at the Maryland Institute College of Art." And the argument she makes is based on her reading of the APA diagnostic criteria for AS and on her experience with two faculty members who did not pass their year's probation.

"I can recall two instances where candidates were hired who, in retrospect, appear to have had many of the characteristic personality traits of Asperger's. Both had stellar résumés and impressive lists of publications; they were dedicated and professional teachers, with superlative references. . . .

Neither lasted more than a year in the job. In the first case -- and I'm disguising some details to protect their identities -- the new hire turned out to be dismissive of any student incapable of meeting her impossibly high standards, disturbingly fastidious, bad-tempered, and intractable in meetings. She was also arrogant, petty-minded, and obsessed with such matters as the relative size of her office and quality of its furniture. In the second case, the new star revealed himself to be an abstemious hermit and hypersensitive to imaginary slights; he was also a compulsive hoarder, and frugal to an unusual extreme. He was discovered to be actually living, Bartleby-like, in his office."

Ms. Brottman is making a host of assumptions that she is not qualified to make. First that these two individuals have Asperger's Syndrome, second that their performance difficulties were in fact related to any neurological difference at all, and third that this experience can be generalized to a population of individuals with Asperger's Syndrome.

I find it illuminating that Ms. Brottman considers AS as character disorder (that would be in the same family as Borderline Personality disorder). She states:

"Consequently, like most character disorders, Asperger's is a controversial diagnosis." (emphasis added)

Most researchers describe AS as a neurobiological issue. She goes on to say:
"If our hires had permitted themselves to accept a diagnosis of Asperger's syndrome (assuming that was, indeed, their condition), would we have been expected to adapt ourselves to the neurological differences that make them obsessive, miserly, rude, and truculent?"

This is an interesting statement on many levels. The language she chooses, eg, 'permitted themselves to accept a diagnosis' makes it seem as if for those individuals a diagnosis would give them an excuse for and permission to continue their inappropriate behavior. In fact, a proper understanding of one's neurology enables the individual to compensate for his or her difficulties and alleviates difficulties.

She also 'blames' their "obsessive, miserly, rude, and truculant" behavior on a diagnosis that she has made based on casual reading. For the sake of argument, I am willing to posit that these two individuals may have had Asperger's Syndrome. If that is the case, there are at least two possible viewpoints regarding their bahavior. First, that their behavior has as much or more to do with base personality than neurological hard-wiring. Second, that anxiety and a stressful work environment triggered stress related responses that were misinterpreted as obsessive, rude, etc. In neither case is it appropriate to assume that these negative behaviors are an inevitable result of Asperger's Syndrome

At the end of the day, Ms. Brottman is guilty of the worst kind of generalization--that made from a sense of academic superiority. I must disagree with her thesis and her conclusions and hope she does not speak for either this publication or academia at large.

ADDENDUM: After performing a websearch, I discovered that in addition to being a professor of language, literature, and culture, Brottman is also a psychotherapist. Mikita Brottman MA, Ph.D--her identifying information can be found here.
I was unable to find any publications by her that dealt with psychotherapy or autism. Her bibliography seems to be limited to books and articles about culture and language.



Anne said...

A number of people have written complaining letters about Professor Brottman's article. Letters can be sent to The Chronicle of Higher Education at:
letters AT

A couple of the letters have been posted on blogs here:

A Touch of Alyricism - Peddling Prejudice

Autism Diva - Pedding Prejudice, Comments

I, too, was unaware when I wrote my letter that Professor Brottman was holding herself out as a psychotherapist, as I now see that she is. However, I can find no information as to her credentials other than that she says she attended at least part of a psychotherapy training program at Washington Square Institute of Psychotherapy and Mental Health. There is no indication that her "M.A., Ph.D." relates to that training, nor does it appear from the licensing look-up site that she is licensed to practice psychology in her state of Maryland. Obviously, if she is a practicing therapist, she is one for autistic spectrum people to avoid.

Lisa Jean Collins said...

When you click on the Psychology Today link, here's what it now says:

"Unfortunately Mikita Brottman, MA, Ph.D is no longer listed here. To find the profiles of other therapists near you, please select a city below."

I wonder if this type of statement following the name "Mikita Brottman" will be cropping up more and more in the future.

mmrriad said...
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