A particularly high functioning autism spectrum disorder, Asperger's Syndrome (AS) mystifies researchers and parents alike. If you or your child has been diagnosed with AS or you're concerned about a potential diagnosis, it helps to understand as much as possible about this disorder. Doing your research can ensure you get the help you need.
How Asperger's Syndrome Is Diagnosed
AS was first discovered by Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger, who publicized the ailment in 1944 based on observations of affected children at his clinic. Over the years, the diagnostic criteria for Asperger's became clearer, and by the 1990s, it was a well-known disorder.
When a mental health professional diagnoses someone with AS, that person must meet the criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. After extensive testing and personal interviews, a mental health professional may make the diagnosis if the individual displays the symptoms of the disorder.
DSM-IV Criteria for Diagnosis
According to the Autism Society, the DSM-IV currently requires the following symptoms for an AS diagnosis:
- A sustained and significant impairment in social interaction
- Narrow interests or repetitive behavior patterns
- No significant delays in language development
- No significant cognitive impairment
DSM-V to Exclude Asperger's
The DSM is undergoing revision, and a new version of the manual will be released in the spring of 2013. One of the biggest changes in regards to Asperger's, is that Asperger's Syndrome will be subsumed into the already existing diagnosis of Autistic Disorder. This means that children and adults who display the symptoms of AS will likely receive the diagnosis of high functioning autism.
Symptoms of Asperger's Disorder
Those with AS may not understand the nonverbal communication queues given by other people, including body posture, gestures, tone of voice, and facial expressions. They may also struggle with taking turns talking and maintaining a back-and-forth conversation.
Lack of Eye Contact
People with Asperger's Syndrome often avoid eye contact. They may be able to meet another's gaze for a brief period, but they may have to break eye contact in order to listen to others, interact, or speak.
Formal Speech and Lack of Figurative Language
Formal speech is common to people with AS. This trait can make children appear precocious or advanced, but it also presents problems socially and in terms of communication. These individuals may have hyperlexia, which is an extensive vocabulary paired with a difficulty in understanding figurative language. AS individuals may exhibit a particular interest in the alphabet and words, but they may be unable to interpret verbal nuances like sarcasm and figurative language. They may literally interpret idioms and figures of speech.
Challenges Involving Theory of Mind
"Theory of Mind" refers to the ability to recognize that other people have thoughts and emotions that are different from your own. This can be a significant challenge for people with all autism spectrum disorders, including Asperger's, and it may be at the root of many of the other social and communication challenges they face. The problem is not a lack of caring, but it can appear to be a lack of empathy.
Focus on Routine and Order
For individuals with AS, routine can be very important. The day's events must unfold in a certain, prescribed way. If they do not, or if something unexpected happens, this can be particularly distressing.
Intense Interest in Specific Topics
Many children and adults with Asperger's have an intense interest in a narrow, specific topic. The focus of this interest may change from time to time, but the intensity is unlikely to waver. The individual will learn every detail about their "special interest" and may want to share this information with others, whether or not other people are interested.
People with AS may talk a lot, especially about a subject that interests them. It can be difficult for them to take another's perspective, so they may not be able to tell when someone else is bored with the topic of conversation. It's common for children and adults with AS to verbalize their internal thoughts.
Fine and Gross Motor Delays
Motor delays are common in children with AS. These kids can seem physically awkward or clumsy, and they may have illegible handwriting. Although some degree of physical awkwardness can follow AS individuals into adulthood, most adults are capable of performing all necessary motor tasks.
Problems with sensory processing can be very uncomfortable. Individuals may not be able to tolerate certain situations. Common sensory problems include the following:
- Background noises
- Food textures
- Clothing textures
The sensory problems can lead to unusual repetitive movements, or self-stimulatory behaviors. Hand flapping, rocking, shifting the weight from foot to foot, and other odd behaviors can help calm the individual with AS and help him or her focus.
What to Do if You're Concerned
If you're concerned that you or your child may have Asperger's Disorder or high functioning autism, it's important to get help as soon as possible. Talk to your family doctor or pediatrician about your concerns, and follow up with a neurophsychologist for an evaluation. Although getting this diagnosis can feel emotionally devastating, it's the first step toward getting the help you or your child really needs to have a successful and happy future. Many treatments are available, and the earlier you begin working with therapists, the better your results may be.
Help Is Available
Once you or your child receives the educational or medical diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome or high functioning autism, you may want to consider all or some of the following treatment options:
- Occupational therapy, which helps individuals with fine motor tasks and sensory difficulties
- Speech therapy, which can help with communication problems and social language problems
- Physical therapy, which can help with gross motor issues
- Applied behavior analysis (ABA), which can target and change problematic behaviors
- Support groups, such as OASIS, the Online Asperger's Syndrome Information and Support center or FAAAS, Families of Adults Affected by Asperger's Syndrome
Getting Help Can Make a Difference
Whether you're an adult struggling with social interaction or a parent of a child with a great vocabulary but few close friends, understanding the basics of this mysterious disorder can help you get the help you need. While no one knows what causes AS or other autism spectrum disorders, research has shown that getting help can make a big difference in an individual's social, communication, and behavioral skills.