Asperger’s syndrome, also called Asperger’s disorder, is a type of pervasive developmental disorder (PDD). PDDs are a group of conditions that involve delays in the development of many basic skills, most notably the ability to socialize with others, to communicate, and to use imagination. There is a spectrum within the PDD disorders.
Although Asperger’s syndrome is similar in some ways to autism — another, more severe type of PDD — there are some important differences. Children with Asperger’s syndrome typically function better than do those with autism. In addition, children with Asperger’s syndrome generally have normal intelligence and near-normal language development, although they may develop problems communicating as they get older.
Asperger’s syndrome was named for the Austrian doctor, Hans Asperger, who first described the disorder in 1944. However, Asperger’s syndrome was not recognized as a unique disorder until much later.
What Are the Symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome?
The symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome vary and can range from mild to severe. Common symptoms include:
- Problems with social skills: Children with Asperger’s syndrome generally have difficulty interacting with others and often are awkward in social situations. They generally do not make friends easily. They have difficulty initiating and maintaining conversation.
- Eccentric or repetitive behaviors: Children with this condition may develop odd, repetitive movements, such as hand wringing or finger twisting.
- Unusual preoccupations or rituals: A child with Asperger’s syndrome may develop rituals that he or she refuses to alter, such as getting dressed in a specific order.
- Communication difficulties: People with Asperger’s syndrome may not make eye contact when speaking with someone. They may have trouble using facial expressions and gestures, and understanding body language. They also tend to have problems understanding language in context and are very literal in their use of language.
- Limited range of interests: A child with Asperger’s syndrome may develop an intense, almost obsessive, interest in a few areas, such as sports schedules, weather, or maps.
- Coordination problems: The movements of children with Asperger’s syndrome may seem clumsy or awkward.
- Skilled or talented: Many children with Asperger’s syndrome are exceptionally talented or skilled in a particular area, such as music or math.
What Causes Asperger’s Syndrome?
The exact cause of Asperger’s syndrome is not known. However, the fact that it tends to run in families suggests it may be inherited (passed from parent to child) genetically.
How Common Is Asperger’s Syndrome?
Asperger’s syndrome recently has been recognized as a unique disorder. For that reason, the exact number of people with the disorder is unknown. While it is more common than autism, estimates for the United States and Canada range from 1 in every 250 children to 1 in every 10,000. It is four times more likely to occur in males than in females and usually is first diagnosed in children between ages 2 and 6, when communicative and language skills are emerging and settling.
How Is Asperger’s Syndrome Diagnosed?
If symptoms are present, the doctor will begin an evaluation by performing a complete medical history and physical and neurological exam. Many individuals with Asperger’s have low muscle tone and dyspraxia, or coordination issues. Although there are no tests for Asperger’s syndrome, the doctor may use various tests — such as X-rays and blood tests — to determine if there is another issue or physical disorder causing the symptoms.
If no physical disorder is found, the child may be referred to a specialist in childhood development disorders, such as a child and adolescent psychiatrist or psychologist, pediatric neurologist, developmental-behavioral pediatrician, or another health professional who is specially trained to diagnose and treat Asperger’s syndrome. The doctor bases his or her diagnosis on the child’s level of development, and the doctor’s observation of the child’s speech and behavior, including his or her play and ability to socialize with others. The doctor often seeks input from the child’s parents, teachers, and other adults who are familiar with the child’s symptoms.
How Is Asperger’s Syndrome Treated?
Right now, there is no cure for Asperger’s syndrome, but therapy may improve functioning and reduce undesirable behaviors. Treatment may include a combination of the following:
- Special education: Education that is structured to meet the child’s unique educational needs
- Behavior modification: This includes strategies for supporting positive behavior and decreasing problem behaviors.
- Speech, physical, or occupational therapy: These therapies are designed to increase the child’s functional abilities.
- Social skills therapies: Run by a psychologist, counselor, speech pathologist, or social worker, these therapies are invaluable ways to build social skills and the ability to read verbal and non-verbal cues that is often lacking in those with Asperger’s.
- Medication : There are no medications to treat Asperger’s syndrome itself, but drugs may be used to treat specific symptoms such as anxiety, depression, hyperactivity, and obsessive-compulsive behavior.