Asperger’s syndrome is an old term for a form of autism. Doctors no longer use this term as a diagnosis, but many people still self-identify with the label.
In modern diagnosis, Asperger’s syndrome is classified under the umbrella of autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) rather than as a stand-alone diagnosis.
This classification change happened in 2013 when the most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) came out. The International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) followed suit in 2019.
That said, the classification remains an important identity term for many people with Asperger’s.
Though autism and Asperger’s are often misunderstood and stigmatized conditions, the tide is turning. For many with the condition, it can be challenging to live in a world that isn’t set up for people with different ways of communicating, but support is available.
ASD is the name given to a group of sensory, social, and communication differences. Autism exists on a spectrum because there’s a wide variety of ways it can present from person to person. No two people with ASD are the same.
According to the DSM-5, there are three levels of autism:
- Level 1: requiring support
- Level 2: requiring substantial support
- Level 3: requiring very substantial support
Asperger’s would have fallen under the Level 1 criteria. Though people with Asperger’s may need help with social interaction, they do not require support with the activities of daily living.
What distinguishes Asperger’s from other types of autism are the levels of differences involved. People with Asperger’s tend to have the same intellectual and verbal skills as neurotypical people.
Asperger’s syndrome is named after Austrian physician Hans Asperger, who first described the condition in 1944 after observing autism-like behaviors and social difficulties among boys with otherwise neurotypical verbal and intellectual skills.
Some people with Asperger’s have wider vocabularies than others, formal speech patterns, and vast knowledge of particular subjects.
Distinctive strengths of Asperger’s may include significant focus and persistence, the ability to recognize patterns, and strong attention to detail. People may have strong rote memory skills but have trouble with abstract ideas.
Anyone can have autism, but because of myths, some groups, such as adults, girls, and people of color, have difficulty getting a diagnosis, says the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network. People of any ethnicity, gender, and age can be on the autistic spectrum.
According to the Asperger/Autism Network, it’s unclear how many people meet the previous criteria for Asperger’s syndrome.
Each person with Asperger’s syndrome will have a different experience of the world. When diagnosing Asperger’s, experts use the following shared characteristics:
- differences in social interactions
- differences in communication
- repetitive patterns of behaviors, interests, and activities
- movement problems
Characteristics of Asperger’s may begin before the age of 2 and continue throughout life.
If you have Asperger’s, relating to and understanding others can come with considerable anxiety. This comes from having trouble reading others’ feelings and expressing your own emotions in ways other people are used to.
The National Autistic Society in the United Kingdom says this can make everyday social interactions — including at school, work, and with family — difficult. It can also make forming friendships tricky.
These differences in social behavior can lead to misinterpretation. People might think you’ve acted in socially inappropriate or insensitive ways when that wasn’t your intention.
You might also not seek comfort from others in the way they expect you to, and you might need some alone time after being with other people for too long.
Despite what some people might think based on the stigma attached to autism, it does not mean people with Asperger’s lack empathy or emotion. In fact, they may have deeper emotions and greater empathy than nonautistic people. They have different ways of expressing this.
When you have Asperger’s, keeping up with social interactions and learning nonautistic people’s social rules can feel exhausting and frustrating.
To relieve the anxiety and depression that can come with socializing, many adults with Asperger’s learn how to interact with nonautistic people. This can be exhausting, too.
Different ways of communicating can also get in the way of social and work life. You might have trouble interpreting others’ facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language. This can lead to misinterpretation or a lack of rhythm in social interactions.
In some forms of autism, there are language difficulties. Those with Asperger’s know how to communicate but might have trouble with jokes, sarcasm, and abstract concepts.
Some people with Asperger’s speak in a formal manner and with less voice inflection. They may speak loudly or go on tangents during conversations and may have one-sided conversations and difficulty detecting changes in the topic.
It can take longer for people with Asperger’s to pick up on social cues, and it helps to rely less on abstract concepts and speak more directly and literally.
Repetitive interests and routines
Many people with Asperger’s develop an all-absorbing preoccupation with a very narrow topic, like species of snakes, names of stars, maps, TV guides, or railway schedules.
When this happens, you might know the topic inside and out and want to talk about it all the time during conversations.
This characteristic usually develops in childhood and can become more salient with age as the person’s interests shift to narrow topics. The topics may change every year or two, but the intensity of the interest remains the same.
It’s also common for people with Asperger’s syndrome to prefer rigid routines. They may find changes in routine cause anxiety. In children, this might present as very particular eating habits.
Having some time to prepare for changes mentally can help ease this anxiety.
Delayed motor development — that is, the ability to move physically with ease — is an associated feature, although it’s not a required criterion for the diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome.
People with Asperger’s may develop motor skills later than children without Asperger’s, such as riding a bike, catching a ball, or opening jars. They might have a rigid walk, unusual posture, and problems with visual-motor coordination.
Want to know more? You can read about the symptoms of ASD here.
There is no single known cause for autism spectrum disorder, including Asperger’s. Experts say these factors may play a role:
- physical factors
Genetic: Research has shown that several genes may be implicated in ASD. Children with a first-degree relative, such as a sibling or parent with ASD, are more likely to develop the condition than those with no such family history. However, not all people with Asperger’s or ASD have a relative with the disorder.
Physical: Brain imaging studies have shown that there are structural and functional differences in certain areas of the brain in people with Asperger’s.
Environmental: Some evidence suggests that environmental factors such as viral infections, prenatal complications, and air pollutants may play a role in developing ASD.
While prevalence estimates are higher for males than females (about 4:1), it has been suggested that females may be underdiagnosed, as they could be compensating for their impairments with more developed social skills.
There is no “cure” for ASD or Asperger’s, and people often don’t classify it as a disorder that needs “treatment.” Many people see Asperger’s as an important aspect of their identity rather than something that needs to be changed.
Some people go to therapy to relieve the anxiety, stress, and depression that can come from living in a world defined by the expectations of neurotypical people.
Many adults with Asperger’s learn to interact with nonautistic people. This can be effective but also mentally and emotionally draining.
Therapy can target social, communication, and behavioral challenges that cause anxiety in daily life. These might include:
Getting a diagnosis of ASD or Asperger’s syndrome often feels like a relief. Some people report that it helps them make sense of the experiences and challenges they face daily.
Various healthcare professionals can diagnose ASD, including psychologists, psychiatrists, and neurophysiologists.
An ASD diagnosis can also serve as a starting point for getting the appropriate services at school or qualifying for employment, housing assistance, or Social Security benefits.
Social workers or psychologists can also help people and their families with counseling sessions. These professionals can point you to various other services, including interventions, psychiatric care, and vocational, residential, and social programs if needed.
If you have a young child and are concerned about their development, you may talk with your pediatrician or connect with your state’s early intervention program through the
The Asperger/Autism Network (AANE) lists several support groups and community sessions for ASD adults.
For further information and guidance, these advocacy organizations also offer resources, community, and support for ASD people and their families: