Is autism a "disorder"? Is psychopathy a "disease"?

Are people with autism disfunctional? Are psychopaths genetically adapted to survive by exploiting the rest of us?

CBC's Quirks and Quarks, my favorite science radio program, has run a couple of pieces recently about the idea that some of what we think of as "disorders" in human behavior can be more usefully treated as speciation — a different kind of human.

Psychopaths: Quirks talks to research psychologists about the biological basis for psychopathy — and the fact that psychopaths are sexually profligate and have lots of kids. Psychopathic rapists target fertile women — not children or old women.

Dr. Marnie Rice is a psychologist with the Mental Health Centre Penetanguishene, in Penetanguishene, Ontario. She studies criminal psychopaths who are incarcerated there. She views psychopathic behaviour as an evolved survival strategy. She says that there's not a lot of evidence to suggest that psychopaths are mentally ill but there's good reason to believe that their disturbing behaviour is an evolved trait. She says psychopaths have evolved to capitalize in a particular environmental niche — namely preying on the rest of society.

Autism: A noted cognitive nueroscientist and one of his patients (who has autism) team up to advance the hypothesis that autism isn't a disorder, but simply a different kind of person. They say that arguing that autism makes you "good at numbers" but "bad at socializing" is like taking a dog and saying that it's a special kind of cat that's "bad at climbing" but "good at fetching slippers." Autism makes you a different kind of person, most usefully compared to other people with autism.

The two researchers make an unlikely team. One is Dr. Laurent Mottron, a psychiatrist and cognitive neuroscientist at the Riviere-des-Prairies Hospital. He has been studying autism for 25 years. The other is Michelle Dawson, who is autistic. Ms. Dawson has never been to university, but is working at the level of someone with a PhD. For the last couple of years, these two have been collaborating on research into autism. They argue that autism should be recognized as a different way of being human, rather than as a disease or series of defects to be eradicated.

I realize that these are uneasy bedfellows. Autism isn't psychopathy. The question is, are there many "disorders" that are really "adaptations"? Homosexuality once appeared in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual as a disorder — now, it's considered just part of the spectrum of human behavior, considered best as "a thing that a person does and is," not "a way that a person is broken." What else lurks in the DSM, waiting to be redefined?