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Asperger's Syndrome

What Is Asperger's Syndrome?

Asperger's syndrome refers to a high-functioning form of autism. Although it was once classified as its own condition, Asperger’s is no longer an official distinct diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). The behavior ascribed to Asperger’s is now encompassed under the umbrella diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder.

People with high-functioning autism/Asperger's often lack social skills, and they may not be able to understand the perspectives and feelings of others. However, their language and cognitive skills are largely intact.

People with the condition may also engage in specific, repetitive body movements. They often have an orientation toward detail and an interest in systemizing, which can come across as an obsession. Some may show remarkable facility in a narrowly focused and usually non-social area, such as baseball statistics or train schedules.

For more on causes, symptoms, and treatments of Asperger's syndrome, see our Diagnosis Dictionary.

What Are the Characteristics of Asperger's Syndrome?

As with all autism spectrum disorders, people with Asperger's have difficulties in social situations. For example, they may not make eye contact, they may not understand a joke, or they may not know how to continue a conversation. People with Asperger's may struggle to understand nonverbal signals or decipher body language.

Because people with Asperger's can lack the ability to understand the perspective of others, they often do not return social feelings or share in the happiness or distress of others. They might fail to develop friendships as children and may be singled out by other kids as "weird" or "awkward."

People with Asperger's often function best with rigid routines and rituals. They are often intensely preoccupied with a narrow area of interest, and occasionally demonstrate incredible abilities in that domain (sometimes referred to as a savant). Like those with full-blown autism, they may engage in repetitive behaviors like finger-twisting, hand-waving, or rocking.

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What Causes Asperger's Syndrome?

The roots of Asperger's syndrome and autism are not well understood. Current research points to brain abnormalities, as scientists have revealed structural and functional differences in specific regions of the brains of children and children with Asperger's. These differences are most likely caused by the abnormal migration of embryonic cells during fetal development that goes on to alter the brain circuits that control thought and behavior.

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

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

How Is Asperger's Syndrome Treated?

Treatments for Asperger's are primarily aimed at teaching social and communication skills. Social skills training focuses on the tools necessary to interact successfully with other children. Speech therapy may help children improve conversational ability and understand the normal pattern of give and take.

Cognitive behavior therapy is often used to help children manage their emotions and to curb obsessive interests and repetitive routines. Sensory integration therapies may help some children, while occupation and physical therapy may help those with poor motor coordination. Parents often need training and support in behavioral techniques to use at home.

There is no medication that can correct the impairments underlying Asperger's syndrome, but selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants such as Prozac may help ameliorate the restriction of interests and repetition of behaviors that mark the disorder.

Neurodiversity and Asperger's Syndrome

The concept of neurodiversity embraces, celebrates, and respects differences between and among people with Asperger's syndrome and other functional but atypical variations in thinking and behavior. While many people with Asperger's wish to improve their social skills in order to cope in a more effective way with the neurotypical majority, others who are not severely impaired see value in their unusual way of looking at the world.

Those who are part of, or support, the neurodiversity movement promote the idea that there is no one "normal" type of mind but rather variations in the way individual minds work. They appreciate the valuable skills and contributions of different types of minds, just as they appreciate the value of other types of diversity.

The Autism Spectrum and the Male Brain

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A theory proposed by British psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen holds that the minds of those with autism and Asperger's syndrome represent an "extreme male brain," or an exaggerated version of a typically "male" brain. Researchers have long known that the hormones that masculinize the body during early development also have effects on the brain as well, influencing patterns of behavior.

Whereas men are generally more efficient at systemizing and less capable of empathizing than women, both men and women on the autism spectrum display an extreme inclination towards systemizing. They are excellent at visual-spatial manipulation and rule-bound thinking but display deficits in empathy and mind reading.

For this reason, Baron-Cohen has labeled autism "mind-blindness." Baron-Cohen's work helps explain why there are an estimated six to eleven times as many males as females with Asperger's, although girls with Asperger's are often misdiagnosed.

What Is Life Like For Those With High-Functioning Autism?

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Adults on the autism spectrum have a tremendous range of experiences. Still, those who are higher functioning are likely to face some common challenges, especially in the realms of relationships and education and potentially in the workforce.

People with Asperger's can struggle to make eye contact, maintain conversation, and muster social energy, which can hinder the formation of friendships and romantic relationships. They may also find it difficult to navigate the physical environment, since some with autism have sensory integration challenges that make them highly sensitive to bright lights, loud noises, and certain textures.

Such problems can influence the academic and professional trajectory of adults on the autism spectrum—although there are many ways of working around these issues. For example, a student with autism may select a university with a neurodivergent program or seek out communities that match his or her specific interests. Certain organizations support people with autism in securing a job, and some companies hire people with autism for their unique skillset and perspective.

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