Asperger Syndrome, or AS, is mild form of autism. If you don't remember hearing about it when you were growing up, that's probably because it's a newer diagnosis. It first appeared in the diagnostic manual of the American Psychiatric Association in 1994, 50 years after it was described by Austrian doctor Hans Asperger. In 2013, "Asperger's" was replaced with the new term autism spectrum disorder, but many people continue to use the older name.
Asperger's is similar to autism, with one major difference. Unlike kids with other forms of autism, children with Asperger’s learn to speak on time and may even have a large vocabulary for their age. Despite these strengths, they often have trouble holding conversations. They typically have “repetitive or restrictive patterns of thought and behavior,” narrow interests and gross motor delays, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Children with AS often become obsessed with a favorite object or topic, such as trains, maps, computer and video games, historical facts, cars, numbers, statistics and cartoon characters.¹ They try to learn everything they can about their special interest, memorizing many facts.
Asperger's has been called the "little professor" syndrome because the children become very knowledgeable about their favorite topic and because of their advanced vocabulary. Their conversations may be one-sided, however, as they list facts without trying to engage the person to whom they are speaking.
Sometimes adults regard the child’s eccentric behavior as a symptom of high intelligence. Because of their relative strengths, children with Asperger’s are often diagnosed at a later age than children with autism or Pervasive Developmental Disorder. Children with AS may not be diagnosed until elementary, middle or high school, while most children with autism are diagnosed in the toddler and preschool years. Early diagnosis is important because it allows the child to receive help at a younger age.
Besides narrow interests, other symptoms of Asperger’s Disorder may include:
- social and emotional immaturity,
- trouble feeling empathy for others,
- problems with non-verbal communication, such as being unable to look people in the eye, having unusual facial expressions or standing too close to others,
- an overly literal understanding of words. The person may not understand jokes, sarcasm or figures of speech, such as, "It's raining cats and dogs."
- a strong craving for sameness, routines and rituals,
- inappropriate behavior,
- unusual responses to touch, texture, light, sounds and other information from the senses, and
- delayed motor skills or poor coordination, such as trouble learning to ride a bike, catch a ball, climb play equipment, and use a pencil.
Despite a good vocabulary, a child with AS may feel isolated by his poor conversational skills and his trouble understanding the rights and feelings of others.
Michael, a 7-year-old with Asperger's, only wants to talk about trains and play his favorite video game. He insists that other children do things his way because it's the "right way." Michael makes comments he regards as truthful — "your coat is ugly," "you're terrible in math" — without understanding that his words are hurtful.
Other children may interpret Michael's demands and remarks as bullying, although Michael doesn't intend to be mean. His behavior may make him a target of teasing and bullying by others when he's older.
Like children with other autism spectrum disorders, Michael will benefit from therapies that focus on language, communication, social skills and behavior management.
If a child with Asperger's is extremely sensitive to sound, light,
touch. taste or textures, he also may be helped by sensory activities to
improve the way he processes
information from his senses. Sensory problems
are common in Asperger's, Brenda Smith Myles says in
Asperger Syndrome and Sensory Issues.
To be effective, any treatment program should build on the child's interests, be predictable, use a schedule, break down complex tasks into simpler steps, keep the child focused by using structured activities, and reinforce positive behavior, according to the National Institutes of Health.2
Like other autism spectrum disorders, Asperger's affects more boys than girls. Your pediatrician can refer you to a child psychologist, psychiatrist or developmental pediatrician for a diagnosis. Some symptoms of Asperger's Syndrome can be confused with those of other disorders, such as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Sensory Processing Disorder. It's helpful to see a diagnostician who is familiar with autism.
Students with Asperger’s usually have fewer academic problems than children with autism, but they still may qualify for Early Intervention services in the preschool years and an Individualized Education Program (IEP) at school.
Parents can ask their local early intervention office or school to evaluate their child. If the evaluation shows a significant problem, the child can receive free therapies and help at school.
At school, a speech-language pathologist can help with social and conversational skills. A physical therapist or occupational therapist can work on improving motor skills, sensory processing and handwriting. A psychologist can provide advice about easing anxiety and handling difficult or aggressive behavior.
In mid-2013, Asperger's ceased to exist as a diagnosis with that name. American psychiatrists combined autism, PDD and Asperger's into a single category of Autism Spectrum Disorder, with new diagnostic criteria. Still, many people continue to use "Asperger's" to refer to a type of high-functioning autism. According to Dan Coulter, "the term 'Asperger Syndrome' has given us an identity that represents our strengths as well as our challenges."3
Recommended books about Asperger's
Asperkids: An Insider's Guide to Loving, Understanding, and Teaching Children with Asperger's Syndrome. Author Jennifer O'Toole, who has Asperger's, reveals "the 'awesome' side of Asperger Syndrome" with advice for teachers and parents.
The Complete Guide to Asperger's Syndrome by Dr. Tony Attwood. In one of the best books on AS, Dr. Attwood relies on research and personal accounts of people with Asperger's to present a positive picture. He includes information on sensory and coordination problems, teasing and bullying, friendships and long-term relationships, problems with empathy, mental health concerns, and careers.
Can I Tell You About Asperger Syndrome?: A Guide for Friends and Family by Jude Welton. A boy named Adam with Asperger Syndrome explains Asperger's to his friends, from his point of view. Adam wants kids to understand the challenges and talents of someone like himself. For ages 7 to 15.
What It Is to Be Me!: An Asperger Kid Book by Angela Wine, parent of a child with AS.
Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's by John Elder Robison "is the moving, darkly funny story of growing up with Asperger's at a time when the diagnosis simply didn't exist. A born storyteller, Robison takes you inside the head of a boy whom teachers and other adults regarded as 'defective,'" says Future Horizons.
Autism experts Drs. Sally Ozonoff, Geraldine Dawson and James McPartland provide up-to-date advice in A Parent's Guide to High-Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder: How to Meet the Challenges and Help Your Child Thrive.
Brenda Smith Myles Ph.D. takes on the important issue of social and interpersonal skills in The Hidden Curriculum: Practical Solutions for Understanding Unstated Rules in Social Situations.
Model Me Kids has videos and lessons that teach social skills for Asperger's Syndrome, including Model Me Confidence and Bullying Prevention, Model Me Friendship and Model Me Organization & Motivation.
National Autism Resources' Asperger's social skills curriculum and activities for preschool through adulthood.
For teens and adults: Rudy Simone, who has Asperger's, provides workplace advice in Asperger's on the Job: Must-have Advice for People with Asperger's or High Functioning Autism, and their Employers, Educators, and Advocates
Asperger's organizations and websites:
- Autism Spectrum Connection (formerly OASIS@MAPP): Website for Online Asperger Syndrome Information and Support. Also, see Asperger Syndrome: The OASIS Guide.
- Dr. Tony Attwood's Asperger's web site
- Jennifer Cook O'Toole's AsperKids book series for parents and people with Asperger's. She is a self-described Aspie and mother to children with Asperger's.
- Social Thinking: Speech pathologist Michelle Garcia Winner's program for teaching social learning to students with Asperger's, ADHD and social-communication problems.
- JobTIPS is a free program to help people with autism and Asperger's explore their career interests, find a job, and be successful in the workplace.
- U.S. government's Stop Bullying website.
- National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) 866-415-8051
2 National Institutes of Health
3 Dealing with the Disappearing Asperger Diagnosis