The discovery of Asperger Syndrome (AS) dates back to 1944. Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger described the syndrome when he was treating four boys with similar symptoms. But his writings remained relatively unknown until 1981. At that time, English doctor Lorna Wing published case studies with children who displayed the same signs.
Still, it wasn’t until 1992 that AS became an official diagnosis in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10). Two years later, it became an official diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV).
Asperger Syndrome is a developmental disorder. People with AS don’t have cognitive or language deficits. (If they do, they’re diagnosed with autism.) But they do have a difficult time interacting, communicating and connecting with others. They’re unable to pick up on social cues and express their emotions.
Often, they also reside on either extreme of the spectrum: Either they’re very orderly and “become unglued if things don’t go their way” or their days are in disarray, and they have a lot of difficulty with daily responsibilities, said Valerie Gaus, Ph.D, psychologist and author of Living Well on the Spectrum: How to Use Your Strengths to Meet the Challenges of Asperger Syndrome/High-Functioning Autism and Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Adult Asperger Syndrome.
The social deficits can get people with AS into trouble, Gaus said. That’s because of their “lack of understanding of the unwritten rules of social engagement.” Gaus noted that she’s heard of several scenarios where people with AS have gotten pulled over by police officers, and they just didn’t know how to behave and seemed suspicious or belligerent.
Clients with AS usually come to Gaus for one of two reasons: to help them with their social interactions (either to get along better with their spouse, co-workers or family or find a romantic partner or friends); or to get organized and effectively manage their time.
Gaus doesn’t view Asperger Syndrome as a disease. Instead, she believes it’s a “unique way of processing information” that creates not just vulnerabilities but “strengths that can help you succeed in life.” For instance, a person with AS might be “a very systematic thinker,” which makes it difficult to “interface with humans,” but also makes them a winning engineer, she said.
So when she works with clients, Gaus’s goal isn’t to eliminate AS, because this has made the person who they are, she said. Rather, it’s “to identify which Asperger’s symptoms are causing [the person] stress and to help them come up with solutions to overcome them.”
AS has received more attention in recent years, but there are still many myths that surround the syndrome. Below, Gaus helps demystify six of them.
1. Myth: Children with AS will grow out of it eventually.
Fact: Like ADHD, there’s a prevalent myth that Asperger Syndrome is strictly a childhood disorder that disappears after young adulthood. But AS is a lifelong condition. It does get better with treatment but never goes away.
2. Myth: Adults with AS don’t get married.
Fact: Even mental health professionals subscribe to this myth. An article in USA Today stated:
Forming close friendships and dating run counter to Asperger’s adults’ goals, colleague [Katherine Tsatsanis of the Yale Developmental Disabilities Clinic] says; [Ami Klin, head of the Yale Developmental Disabilities Clinic] says he has never known a parent with Asperger’s.
Bryna Siegel, director of the Autism Clinic at the University of California-San Francisco, concurs that an Asperger’s parent would be rare, and she knows of just one short-lived marriage.
The reality is that some adults do get married and have families — Gaus has worked with many of them — and some have never had a romantic relationship. According to Gaus, there’s a lot of variability in how Asperger’s manifests. (“There is a lot of room for variability in the DSM criteria.”)
“There isn’t one profile that I could describe because personality affects how the person presents.” Some people with AS are super shy, while other are “chatterboxes.” Comorbidity is another reason adults may look different. Gaus often sees clients with both Asperger’s and anxiety issues or mood disorders. It’s hard to know what the person was like before they started struggling with the co-occurring disorder.
3. Myth: Adults with AS have social phobia.
Fact: While adults with Asperger’s do struggle with anxiety, they don’t have social phobia. Gaus said that people with social phobia have the social skills to interact and communicate with others but they’re afraid to use those skills. In other words, they’re “socially skilled but have a distorted belief that the outcome [of their interactions] will be poor.”
For people with Asperger’s, however, avoiding interactions is more about self-preservation, she said. They’re well aware that they’re unable to read cues or know the appropriate thing to say. They’ve also made mistakes in the past and experienced rejection, she added.
4. Myth: Adults with AS are aloof and uninterested in others.
Fact: “Most people I meet are very interested in wanting to have people in their lives,” Gaus said. Some even feel desperate that they haven’t been able to connect with others, she said. But oftentimes, their social skill deficits convey the message that they just don’t care.
That’s because people with Asperger’s easily miss cues, don’t know when to stop talking about themselves and may not realize that others have different thoughts and feelings, she said. Or “they simply don’t have a repertoire of responses.”
Gaus gave the example of a co-worker telling someone with Asperger’s that their cat died and the person just walks away. Of course, this makes it seem like the person is incredibly insensitive. But they do care; they just may not know what to say, she said.
5. Myth: They don’t make any eye contact.
Fact: Gaus recounted how a psychiatrist once questioned whether a patient had Asperger’s because he looked in his eyes. “Many actually do make eye contact, but it just might be in a fleeting or unusual way,” she said.
6. Myth: They lack empathy.
Fact: “Empathy is a complicated concept,” Gaus said. Some researchers have divided empathy into four components: two called “cognitive empathy” and two called “emotional empathy.” People with Asperger’s struggle with cognitive empathy but have no problem with emotional empathy, she said.
Take the above example: The person with Asperger’s isn’t able to intellectually infer that the co-worker who lost their cat might be sad, especially in the moment. They might realize this hours later at home. “But when they do know the person is sad, they are able to feel that sadness without any difficulty, perhaps even more intensely than typical people,” she said. In other words, “they have difficult expressing empathy in a conventional way.” It’s a problem of communication, not empathy, she said.