Asperger’s Disorder — also known as Asperger’s Syndrome or just AS — is a mild form of autism, recognized as a mental health concern that sometimes requires treatment. Asperger’s is usually diagnosed in childhood or as a young teenager, and is characterized by social impairment, isolation, and what others might see as eccentric behavior.
The disorder’s name comes from Hans Asperger, an Austrian physician who first described the syndrome in 1944.
Asperger’s: Impairments in Social Interactions with Others
Although the social criteria for Asperger’s Disorder (also known as Asperger’s Syndrome or AS) and autism are identical, AS usually involves fewer symptoms and presents differently than autism.
Individuals with Asperger’s Disorder often isolate themselves, but they’re still aware of the presence of others, even though the way they approach people can be inappropriate and even peculiar. For example, they might have a one-sided and long-winded conversation with a person — usually an adult — about an unusual and narrow topic.
Also, although individuals with Asperger’s are often self-described loners, they usually express great interest in making friends and meeting people. Unfortunately, their awkward approach, insensitivity to other’s feelings and odd facial expressions and body language (e.g., signs of boredom, quick to leave, avoiding eye contact or staring inappropriately) make developing relationships difficult. This can lead to chronic frustration. Even worse, some individuals get so upset that they develop symptoms of depression, which may require treatment, including medication.
Individuals with AS often also display inappropriate emotional aspects of social interactions. They can come off as being insensitive. They might appear to lack empathy or to disregard another person’s expressions and gestures altogether. However, people with AS usually are able to describe other people’s emotions and intentions — they’re just unable to act on this knowledge in an intuitive and spontaneous way, so they end up losing the rhythm of the interaction. Because they have such a poor sense of intuition and spontaneity, people with AS rely on formal, rigid rules of behavior, making them appear inappropriately and overly formal in social situations.
Some of these symptoms also appear in individuals with higher-functioning autism, though perhaps to a lesser extent. Most autistic people seem withdrawn and unaware of or uninterested in other people.
Asperger’s: Impairments in Communication with Others
Unlike autistic individuals, those with AS don’t usually have significant speech problems, but their language and speech skills still differ from people without the disorder. As a whole, people with AS have an odd way of using language. Specifically, their communication differs in three major ways.
- People with AS don’t have quite the degree of rigid inflection and intonation as autistic individuals, but they still tend to speak in a monotone. Pitch typically lacks variation and is simply peculiar. They might talk too loudly or too formally. They tend to misunderstand the nuances of language, such as taking a sarcastic remark seriously or not grasping a joke or a metaphor.
- They may go off on tangents during a conversation and their speech can seem incoherent. Even though in some cases this symptom might mean a possible thought disorder, it’s more likely that the incoherent speech is a result of their one-sided, egocentric conversational style, inability to provide background information, clearly distinguish changes in topic and tendency to express their inner thoughts.
- Some experts view the long-winded and one-sided conversations as one of the most prominent differential features of the disorder. The child or adult may talk incessantly, usually about their favorite subject, often completely disregarding whether the listener is interested, engaged or trying to interject a comment, or change the subject. Despite such long-winded monologues, the individual may never come to a point or conclusion. Usually the other person can’t get a word in and is unable to change the conversation.
Even though it’s possible that these symptoms stem from significant deficits in pragmatics skills or a lack of insight into, and awareness of, other people’s expectations, the challenge is to understand them developmentally as strategies of social adaptation.
Asperger’s: Restricted and Repetitive Patterns of Behavior, Interests and Activities
The DSM-IV criteria for Asperger’s Disorder and autism are identical, requiring the presence of at least one symptom from this category. The most commonly seen symptom in AS is an all-absorbing preoccupation with an unusual and very narrow topic (e.g., snakes, names of stars, maps, TV guides, railway schedules). A person with AS will usually know the topic inside and out and want to talk about it all the time during social interactions. Although this symptom may not be easily recognized in children, since strong interests in one topic are so common, it may become more salient with age, as interests shift to odd and narrow topics. The topics may change every year or two, but the intensity with which they are studied remains the same.
Individuals with AS tend to have rigid routines and dislike change. For instance, children may be very particular about how they eat.
Asperger’s: Physical Clumsiness
Delayed motor development — that is, the ability to move one’s physical body with ease and grace — is an associated feature, although it’s not a required criterion for diagnosis of Asperger’s Disorder. Individuals with AS may have a history of delayed motor skills such as riding a bike, catching a ball or opening jars. They are often awkward, with a rigid walk, odd posture and problems with visual-motor coordination.
Although this differs from motor development in autistic children, whose motor skills often are a relative strength, it is somewhat similar to patterns seen in older autistic individuals. The similarity might stem from different underlying factors, however, such as psychomotor deficits in AS and poor body image and sense of self in autism. This highlights the importance of describing this symptom in developmental terms.