Asperger's Syndrome is a form of high-functioning autism. It was discovered by Hans Asperger, a German doctor, in 1944. While Asperger's Syndrome (AS) has many similarities to Kanner's Syndrome (classical autism) there are enough distinct differences to make AS appear to be an entirely different condition in many people.
While children with Kanner's Syndrome experience delays in language use, children with AS usually begin speaking at a normal age. Many also display a characteristic called hyperlexia which leads them to read at an extremely early age. In addition to early speech and reading - which would not by themselves indicate a problem - the AS child often displays a stilted form of speech that leads some educators and therapists to dub them 'little professors'.
The AS child is an avid researcher and can often recite endless details about some narrow interest such as insects or oven manufacturers. While the vocabulary can be extensive, the AS child frequently speaks in a flat voice with little or no detectable emotion. Children with AS have great difficulty with socialising. They will often recite facts at their playmates rather than interact with them. As a result, many children with AS find themselves outcast or even bullied. Some AS children show no interest in other children while others try repeatedly to make friends.
Many AS children are clumsy or awkward. While sensory issues are usually not as strong for children with AS as with other forms of autism, AS children often display stimulatory behaviours - called 'stims' - such as body rocking, hand flicking or shaking. Some AS children engage in harmful stims such as head-banging, especially when stressed.
How Common is AS?
Studies conducted in England and the United States have placed the occurrence of autism at 4.5 of every 10,000 live births. When all Pervasive Developmental Disorders (including Asperger's Syndrome) are taken into account, that figure leaps to 15-20 of every 10,000 live births. Information on the specific prevalence of Asperger's Syndrome is limited.
While some claim that AS is more common among boys than girls1 others believe that boys are more frequently diagnosed due to the different expectations adults often have for boys and girls.
Is there a Cure for AS?
There are, however, therapies and interventions for AS including, but not limited to, dietary changes, auditory and sensory integration training, Discrete Trial Applied Behavioural Analysis, behavioural modification, and facilitated communication. Many children with AS grow up to be productive and independent adults while some continue to require special guidance the rest of their lives.
What other Problems Come along with AS?
AS often comes along with a collection of other neurological abnormalities. Not all people with AS will have all of these abnormalities. The effects of autism have been described as a shotgun blast to the brain in that it's impossible to predict where the pellets will lodge and what parts of a person's neurological functioning will be affected by AS. Some of the other conditions that tend to cluster around AS include:
Prosopagnosia, also called 'face blindness', is a condition that causes a person to have difficulty recognising faces. Many people with prosopagnosia report being able to recognise people after repeated exposure while others are so strongly affected that they cannot even recognise their own family members without other identifying clues such as location, clothing and hairstyle.
Auditory Processing Disorder
Auditory Processing Disorder (APD) can cause sufferers to have difficulty understanding things which are said to them, even though they can hear them perfectly. APD can be more troublesome in noisy environments such as restaurants, or when a sufferer is confronted with a group of people all talking.
Dysgraphia is a motor control difficulty that makes it very difficult to produce legible handwriting.
Difficulty Reading Body Language and Facial Expressions
People with AS often have a hard time recognising emotions in others. Body language and facial expressions that are interpreted naturally by most people often must be consciously studied by people with AS. There is a similar problem with tone of voice.
Some people with AS experience pain or discomfort when touched by others. Some have difficulty wearing certain types of clothing. Some cannot stand to touch certain textures or eat foods with certain textures. Some have a difficult time tolerating certain noises, lights or colours.
Is Asperger's Syndrome Only a Childhood Condition?
No, AS is a life-long condition. Many people with AS are not diagnosed until their adult years, especially in the United States where Asperger's Syndrome did not enter the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual until 1994. Adults with Asperger's face special problems because they are often ill-equipped to handle all facets of adult life, where many areas do not recognise AS as a disability. Adults with AS, particularly undiagnosed adults with AS, often slip through the cracks when it comes to social services and help with their autism. Some doctors will diagnose a person with AS as having autism so that their patient will be better able to take advantage of social services.
What Can We Do to Help?
The most respectful thing people can do to make life easier for people with AS is to acknowledge the differences caused by AS while still treating the person as a human being like any other. Some specific things that people with AS might find helpful include:
Be aware that the person with AS may be easily overwhelmed by sensory stimulation or the presence of other people. Don't be insulted if a person with AS tells you that they have to be alone for a while.
Be aware that a person with AS may not always know or understand certain expectations or social rituals. They may forget to thank you for something nice. They may greatly dislike speaking on the phone or sound rude and curt when they do. People with AS are often very blunt and to the point. Try to appreciate their honesty if you can rather than becoming upset if they forget a social rule. Chances are, that social rule doesn't make logical sense to them and they weren't trying to insult you.
Don't be insulted if a person with AS fails to recognise you after spending hours with you. It doesn't mean they didn't enjoy their time with you, they just may have difficulty remembering everyone's face.
Where Can I Learn more about Asperger's Syndrome?
Check your phone book or the Web to find the nearest Autism group. They will be able to refer you to doctors, books and support groups with more information.