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Asperger's Syndrome

Asperger's syndrome (AS) is an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) marked by impaired social interactions and limited repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, and activities. Individuals with ASD have symptoms that fall on a continuum—and since Asperger's syndrome is now a part of ASD it is commonly believed that individuals with Asperger's syndrome have high functioning ASD. This syndrome has no significant delays of language acquisition, but motor skills may be delayed.

The term is still used widely, though it is no longer an official diagnosis.

It's conservatively estimated that two out of every 10,000 children have high-functioning autism.

Symptoms

  • Abnormal verbal and nonverbal communication
  • Inability to engage in typical back and forth conversation
  • Inability to return social or emotional feelings
  • Not seeking to share enjoyment, interests, or achievements with others
  • Failure to develop and maintain peer relationships
  • Inflexibility about specific routines or rituals
  • Repetitive finger tapping, twisting, or whole body movements
  • Unusually intense preoccupation with a narrow areas of interest
  • Repetitive behaviors, including repetitive self-injurious behavior
  • Unusually sensitive to sensory aspects of the environment
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Causes

The roots of Asperger's syndrome and autism are not completely understood, but current research points to brain abnormalities. Scientists have revealed structural and functional differences in specific regions of the brains of typical versus AS children. These differences are most likely caused by the abnormal migration of embryonic cells during fetal development that affects brain structure and goes on to alter the neural circuits that control thought and behavior.

There is also a genetic component to AS and ASD, because the condition tends to run in families. For example, identical twins are much more likely than fraternal twins or siblings to both have ASD. Recent research indicates that there may be a common group of genes whose variations or deletions make an individual vulnerable to developing AS with varying severity and symptoms.

Certain environmental factors also elevate the risk of developing AS, such as older parental age, exposure to the drug valproate in utero, and low birth weight.

Treatment

While there is currently no cure for AS, treatment focuses on the three main symptoms: poor communication skills, obsessive or repetitive routines, and physical clumsiness.

An effective treatment program builds on the child's interests, offers a predictable schedule, teaches tasks as a series of simple steps, actively engages the child's attention in highly structured activities, and provides regular reinforcement of behavior. This includes:

  • Social skills training: teaches the necessary skills to interact more successfully with other children
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy: talk therapy that helps to manage emotions and cut back on obsessive interests and repetitive routines
  • Medication for co-existing conditions such as depression and anxiety
  • Occupational or physical therapy for children with sensory integration problems or poor motor coordination
  • Specialized speech or language therapy to help with the pragmatics of speech
  • Parental training of behavioral techniques and support
References
American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition          
American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
National Institutes of Health, US Department of Health and Human Services
National Institutes of Health, National Library of Medicine
National Autistic Society
Last updated: 02/21/2019