Named after Hans Asperger, the pediatrician who first described its symptoms, Asperger’s is a part of an umbrella of neurological and social conditions called “autism spectrum disorders.” Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) is more difficult to identify and diagnose than many autism-related disorders, mostly because symptoms can be attributed to many other conditions. But the diagnosis of AS is usually empowering, as persons with Asperger’s typically have an easier time mainstreaming than those with other autism spectrum disorders.
The onset of the disease is usually at 3 to 5 years old.
What is Asperger’s Syndrome?
Asperger’s Syndrome (also called Asperger’s Disorder) is a neurological condition characterized by:
Severe Impairment in Social Interaction and Skills
People with Asperger’s tend to be self-focused (which is not to say they are self-centered). They prefer to be alone and have very little need for companionship. They are more interested in their inner musings, and are prone towards introspection and daydreaming. They can appear rude when spoken to, and may have difficulty following the subtext of a conversation (they can’t “read between the lines”). They can be very selective when it comes to associating with peers or adults. Additionally, many kids and adults with AS are prone to random bursts of temper.
Limited Repetitive Behavior
People with Asperger’s are also prone to various obsessions and narrow interests. For instance, they might be interested in parts of objects (like clocks) or they might like spinning things over and over and over. They flap their hands (particularly when excited). Some children with Asperger’s are called “little professors,” as they like to recite to others (as if teaching) whatever it is they are currently obsessing about.
Lack of Emotional Reciprocity
People with Asperger’s have difficulty identifying their own emotions as well as empathizing with other people. They can’t read non-verbal cues that communicate feelings, and may even appear cold and dismissive of other’s distress or pain. They are also poor at using non-verbal cues themselves such as maintaining eye contact, showing appropriate facial expressions or using gestures naturally. Not surprisingly, considering all this, people with AS have trouble making friends. However, they often don’t care so much about this as they are not all that interested in social relationships.
People with Asperger’s Syndrome tend to have excellent language and cognitive skills, and may even excel in areas they obsess on. Some may have motor problems and clumsiness.
What Can Parents Do?
If parents suspect that their child may have Asperger’s, the best thing to do is to get a diagnosis by a qualified mental health practitioner. Developmental psychologists, as well as psychiatrists, are generally competent at diagnosing autism spectrum disorders, but it’s always better to consult one who specializes in the disease. Because Asperger’s is primarily biological in origin (it is not caused by trauma nor by bad parenting), it has an early onset; symptoms that look like Asperger’s, but appear later in life, are unlikely to stem from Asperger’s Disorder.
Early intervention is critical in managing Asperger’s Syndrome. Currently, there are no cures for the illness, but medications and therapy can assist in managing symptoms. Many with AS are able to live highly functioning and productive lives. It does help for parents and other care-providers to be educated about their children’s particular needs. Training in social and communication skills, as well as occupational therapy can help with the various symptoms of AS.