Asperger syndrome (AS) is a neurobiological disorder that is part of a group of conditions called autism spectrum disorders. The term "autism spectrum" refers to a range of developmental disabilities that includes autism as well as other disorders with similar characteristics.
They are known as spectrum disorders because the symptoms of each can appear in different combinations and in varying degrees of severity: two children with the same diagnosis, though they may share certain patterns of behavior, can exhibit a wide range of skills and abilities.
As a result, general terms such as "low-functioning," "high-functioning," "autistic tendencies," "pervasive developmental disorder," and others are often used to describe children whose behaviors fall within the spectrum. Kids with AS share many of the same symptoms as those with "high-functioning autism."
Boys are more than three to four times more likely than girls to be affected by AS. Because milder cases are being identified more frequently, the incidence appears to be increasing. However, like other autism spectrum disorders, AS is often difficult to diagnose and treat.
The disorder is named after Hans Asperger, a Viennese pediatrician who, in 1944, first described a set of behavior patterns apparent in some of his patients, mostly males. Asperger noticed that although these boys had normal intelligence and language development, they had severely impaired social skills, were unable to communicate effectively with others, and had poor coordination.
According to the Asperger Syndrome Coalition of the United States, the onset of AS may be later than what is typical in autism — or at least it is recognized later. Many kids are diagnosed after age 3, with most diagnosed between the ages of 5 and 9.
AS is characterized by poor social interactions, obsessions, odd speech patterns, and other peculiar mannerisms. Kids with AS often have few facial expressions and have difficulty reading the body language of others; they might engage in obsessive routines and display an unusual sensitivity to sensory stimuli (for example, they may be bothered by a light that no one else notices; they may cover their ears to block out sounds in the environment; or they might prefer to wear clothing made only of a certain material).
Overall, people with AS are capable of functioning in everyday life, but tend to be somewhat socially immature, relate better to adults than peers, and may be seen by others as odd or eccentric.
Other characteristics of AS may include motor delays, clumsiness, limited interests, and peculiar preoccupations. Adults with AS have trouble demonstrating empathy for others, and social interactions continue to be difficult.
Experts say that AS follows a continuous course and usually lasts a lifetime. However, symptoms can wax and wane over time, and early intervention services can be helpful.
Because the symptoms of AS are often hard to differentiate from other behavioral problems, it's best to let a doctor or other health professional evaluate your child's symptoms. It's not uncommon for a child to be diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) before a diagnosis of AS is made later.
A child with AS might have these signs and symptoms:
It's important to note that, unlike kids with autism, those with AS might show no delays in language development; they usually have good grammatical skills and an advanced vocabulary at an early age. However, they typically do exhibit a language disorder — they might be very literal and have trouble using language in a social context.
Often there are no obvious delays in cognitive development. Although kids with AS can have problems with attention span and organization, and have skills that seem well developed in some areas and lacking in others, they usually have average and sometimes above-average intelligence.
Researchers and mental health experts are still investigating the causes of autism and AS. Many believe that the pattern of behavior that characterizes AS may have many causes. Research points to the possibility of brain abnormalities as a cause of AS, given that there have been structural and functional differences in specific regions of the brain recognized by using advanced brain imaging.
There seems to be a hereditary component to AS, and research indicates that in some cases AS may be associated with other mental health disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder.
Contrary to the incorrect assumptions some may make about people with the disorder, AS is not caused by emotional deprivation or the way a person has been brought up. Because some of the behaviors exhibited by someone with AS may be seen by others as intentionally rude, many people wrongly assume that AS is the result of bad parenting — it isn't. It's a neurobiological disorder whose causes are not yet fully understood.
Currently, there is no cure for the disorder — kids with AS become adults with AS. But many lead full and happy lives, and the likelihood of achieving this is enhanced with appropriate education, support, and resources.
Asperger syndrome can be very difficult to diagnose. Children with AS function well in most aspects of life, so it can be easy to attribute their strange behaviors to just being "different."
Experts say that early intervention involving educational and social training, performed while a child's brain is still developing, is very important for kids with AS.
If your child exhibits some of the symptoms and behaviors that are typical of AS, it's critical to seek help from your doctor. He or she can refer you to a mental health professional or other specialist for further evaluation.
When a specialist assesses your child, a thorough "psychosocial" evaluation will be performed. This includes a careful history of when symptoms were first recognized, the development of motor skills and language patterns, and other aspects of personality and behavior (including favorite activities, unusual habits, preoccupations, etc.).
Particular emphasis is placed on social development, including past and present problems in social interaction and development of friendships. A psychological evaluation and assessment of communication skills are usually conducted to determine which strengths and skills might be deficient.
Because AS can present patterns of behaviors and problems that differ widely from child to child, there isn't a "typical" or prescribed treatment regimen. However, depending on what their strengths and weaknesses are (or depending on what their development history is), kids may benefit from these treatments:
It will help if you involve all of your child's caregivers in the treatment. The health professionals who are caring for your child should know what the others are doing, and you will often find yourself acting as the "case manager" in this scenario. Teachers, babysitters, other family members, close friends, and anyone else who cares for your child also should be involved.
It's important to know that many people can provide assistance. Finding the right program for your child is key and getting help early is important. Kids with AS can and do experience great gains with the appropriate treatment and education.
Although AS presents challenges for kids and their parents, you can help your child adjust and offer support in many ways:
Currently, few facilities are specifically dedicated to providing for the needs of kids with AS. Some children are in mainstream schools where their progress depends on the support and encouragement of parents, caregivers, teachers, and classmates. However, some go to special schools for kids with autism or learning disabilities.
Many people with AS can function well in most aspects of life, so the condition does not have to prevent your child from succeeding academically and socially.
You may feel overwhelmed and discouraged if your child is diagnosed with AS. Remember that your child's treatment team can provide enormous support and encouragement for your child — and your family.
Reviewed by: Rhonda Walter, MD
Date reviewed: January 2012
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