Asperger’s syndrome is a developmental disorder that falls under the autism spectrum. Asperger’s was first described in the 1940s by Viennese pediatrician Hans Asperger, who observed this behavior in his young male patients. The patients had normal intelligence and language development, but had trouble with coordination and poor social and communication skills. Hans called these boys ‘little professors’ because they could talk about their favorite subject in great detail.
Asperger’s syndrome is often described as a milder form of autism or as “high-functioning autism”. It is a disorder that is often not recognized because children with Asperger’s are often bright and verbal and are able to function well in everyday life. So their challenges in social interaction are often brushed away as just odd behavior.
In 2013, theDiagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM-5)replaced autism, Asperger’s syndrome and other pervasive developmental disorders with the umbrella diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Social interaction: Children with Asperger’s syndrome have good cognition and language skills and usually want to interact with others, but often they have difficulty in communication. They may appear socially awkward, and not be able to follow social rules, or interpret body language or show empathy. Children with Asperger’s syndrome may also take what is said in the literal sense and not understand the use of gestures or sarcasm.
Restricted interests and repetitive behaviors: Children with Asperger’s may also be very drawn to a particular topic and may know detailed information about these topics of interest (such as trains, dinosaurs). In some cases, there may also be signs of repetitive behavior such as flapping hands.
As with other disorders in the autism spectrum, Asperger’s is also characterized by sensory sensitivity. Sensory sensitivity is when senses such as sight, sound or smell are heightened or intensified. For instance, the child may be distressed or overwhelmed by a certain sound or smell and this may sometimes lead to emotional outbursts.
One of the key features that distinguishes Asperger’s syndrome and autism is that, by definition, there is no problem with language acquisition or cognitive development in children with Asperger’s. In fact, many children with Asperger’s may be proficient readers and may have average to above-average intelligence. However, like with autism, speech patterns in children with Asperger’s may be unusual, for example, it may be monotonous, or too loud or very high-pitched.
There may also be a motor skill delay and this may be reflected in poorly coordinated or clumsy, awkward movements.
The specific cause behind Asperger’s syndrome is not understood yet. Since the disorder tends to run in families, there is believed to be a genetic component, but no specific gene has been identified.
Asperger’s syndrome is more common in boys than girls.
Asperger’s syndrome is diagnosed through detailed interviews with the parent or caregiver and the child's teachers. The expert will make the diagnosis based on information about the child’s developmental history and their social interactions and behavior. Most children with Asperger’s are diagnosed between the ages of five and nine but because the condition is so difficult to recognize it is often misdiagnosed or confused with other disorders such ADHD, OCD or Tourette’s.
Although there is no known cure for Asperger’s, there are many effective interventions that can help the child cope with Asperger’s without allowing it to impact their quality of life. These approaches may be focused on improving the child’s social interactions (speech therapy and social skills training), helping them cope with the difficulties associated with Asperger’s such as being bullied or isolated at school (cognitive behavior therapy), or working on motor skills and sensory problems (occupational therapy). Interventions also involve approaches that help empower parents or the caregivers.