Understanding Asperger’s Syndrome

understanding aspergers

Asperger's syndrome is a condition that is closely linked with autism and involves similar symptoms, including difficulties with socialization and communication. While this condition was first discovered in 1944, it was not diagnosed regularly until the late 1980's.

Despite its long history, there is still some controversy surrounding the diagnosis of Asperger's—some believe that it is simply pathologizing social awkwardness, while others believe it exists but should not be considered a “disorder.” In addition, the terminology surrounding Asperger's has changed recently, virtually eliminating it as a distinct condition in and of itself.

This overview of the condition addresses these issues and will provide you with a basic understanding of Asperger's—including its causes, symptoms, and treatments.

Asperger's and Autism

The relationship between Asperger's and autism can be confusing, due in large part to the recent overhaul about how mental health professionals conceptualize and speak about these conditions.

Before the publication of the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) in 2013, psychologists used a number of related but distinctly different conditions to diagnose people with social and communication difficulties, including Asperger's syndrome. However, with the publication of the DSM-5, these disorders now fall under the umbrella term “Autism Spectrum Disorder.” Therefore, the diagnosis of Asperger's no longer technically exists—people with the condition are now considered to be on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum.

Asperger's Causes

As with other forms of autism, the causes of Asperger's are still not completely understood. However, most researchers believe that genetics plays a significant role in the development of this condition—although no specific genes related to it have been located yet. However, researchers have noticed that the parents of children with this condition often demonstrate symptoms as well, lending credence to the idea that Asperger's has some basis in genetics.

Asperger's Signs and Symptoms

There is no official list of Asperger's symptoms—the ways in which it effects people can vary considerably from person to person. However, most signs of this condition center around difficulties with social interaction.

People dealing with Asperger's often have difficulties creating and maintaining relationships, both platonically and romantically, and this occurs for several reasons. For one, this condition makes it difficult to feel empathy for others. This can lead to problems when people interpret their behavior as standoffish or even cruel, despite not intentionally trying to convey these feelings to others. Additionally, people with Asperger's often have problems reading nonverbal cues—such as body language, facial expressions, and eye contact (or lack thereof). However, problems such as this don’t always mean that a person with Asperger's will be shy or socially withdrawn. In fact, sometimes the exact opposite is true—but this can lead to its own set of difficulties. For example, a person with Asperger's may engage in long-winded conversations without realizing that his or her listeners are displaying a lack of interest in the subject.

It’s been shown that many people with Asperger's syndrome can easily identify and enact social norms in a clinical setting, but they often have trouble effectively applying these concepts to real-world situations, which can lead to overcompensation. For example, if a person with Asperger's understands that eye contact is an important in social interactions, they may maintain an unnatural level of eye contact in conversations.

In addition to issues with socialization, people with Asperger's syndrome also typically have very intense but restricted interests. How these preoccupations manifest will be different for everyone, but it’s not uncommon to find people with Asperger's who have a near-encyclopedic knowledge of their favorite subjects. While intense interests are not in and of themselves problematic, they may lead to additional socialization problems if they are uninterested in relating to the interests of their peers.

Asperger's syndrome may also cause people to engage in very restrictive and repetitive behaviors. It’s not uncommon to find people with the condition who follow very rigid daily routines or who engage in ritualized movements, like crossing their legs or rocking back and forth.

Lastly, another common Asperger's sign is difficulty with language. Unlike other forms of autism, Asperger's syndrome does not usually delay the onset of language acquisition. However, people with the condition may have trouble understanding figurative language, such as irony or sarcasm, and instead misinterpret it literally. Additionally, people with Asperger's may speak incoherently or be unable to effectively alter the pitch or intonation of their words.

Asperger's Treatment

There is currently no cure for Asperger's syndrome, but many times its symptoms can be controlled with various types of therapy.

A specific form of speech therapy known as social communication intervention can help people with the condition learn the various conventions that dictate everyday conversation. However, as noted earlier, patients may have difficulty applying these conventions to situations they encounter in the real world.

Additionally, cognitive behavioral therapy may be necessary to help patients manage anxiety related to social interaction. This form of treatment involves working with a therapist to identify and change negative or inaccurate beliefs about oneself in order to more rationally and realistically face challenging situations that may arise.

Medications may be used as well, but these are not actually used to treat Asperger's syndrome. Instead, they are used to help regulate co-morbid conditions such as depression or anxiety disorder. However, this approach to treatment must be undertaken carefully—when medications are tested for side effects, people with Asperger's or other forms of autism are generally not included in the studies. Therefore, the effects of medication on these people are not always completely understood.

Finally, it should be noted that some people with Asperger’s have no desire to seek treatment or a cure for their condition at all. Instead of seeing themselves as diseased, they prefer to conceptualize themselves as “neuroatypical”—a term coined by autism activists to designate someone who falls on the autism spectrum. This view presupposes that, while Asperger’s and other forms of autism are divergent from the norm, they are not a less preferable state of being.