Asperger’s syndrome historically refers to a mild form of autism. These days, doctors no longer use it as a diagnosis, but many people still self-identify with the label.

Before 2013, Asperger’s syndrome was recognized as a diagnosis in the Diagnosis and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

In the manual’s latest version, DSM-5, Asperger’s was combined with four other types of autism under the umbrella of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) instead.

While Asperger’s syndrome is no longer used as a clinical diagnosis, it remains an important identity term for many people. Some identify as having Asperger’s or as an “Aspie.”

In this article, we’ll explore how ASD is defined and categorized today, as well as some signs and symptoms of what used to define Asperger’s in the DSM.

When the DSM-5 removed Asperger’s as a diagnosis, it was replaced with the new classification of ASD.

ASD combines Asperger’s with several other previous classifications of autism, and healthcare professionals make a diagnosis based on a person’s needs instead of by what “type” of autism a person has.

According to DSM-5, the three levels of autism are:

  • Level 1: requiring support
  • Level 2: requiring substantial support
  • Level 3: requiring very substantial support

Your healthcare team will decide on the best therapy and management methods based on these levels of need.

ASD is diagnosed much in the same way that Asperger’s used to be.

Children

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a reliable ASD diagnosis can be made in children as young as 2 years old, with some made in children 18 months old and younger.

Early signs of ASD can include:

  • diminished eye contact
  • a lack of interest in caretakers or other children
  • limited language relative to other children in their age group
  • getting upset about small changes to routine

Diagnosing ASD in children

There are three steps involved in diagnosing ASD in children. Some of this process is a normal part of tracking a child’s development as they grow.

Developmental monitoring

This process uses certain “milestones” to make sure a child’s development is on course. These milestones relate to how a child plays, learns, speaks, and more, relative to other children their age.

Developmental screening

In this step, your doctor may use a combination of checklists, parental surveys, and other screening tools to determine whether further evaluation is needed.

Experts recommend that several of these screenings take place in early childhood for all children, with possible additional screenings if your child has a chance of having ASD.

Comprehensive developmental evaluation

This is a formal evaluation that’s used if a developmental screening shows that a child may be exhibiting signs of autism.

A team of specialists, which may include a child psychologist or a neuropsychologist, will evaluate your child on things like cognition and language abilities.

Other testing, including blood and hearing tests, may be used to get the most accurate diagnosis possible and rule out any other possibilities.

Adults

Diagnosing ASD in adults can be a little more complicated than it is in children. This is because the symptoms of other mental health disorders can overlap with those of ASD. One example is attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

While ASD testing in children is well-established and considered to be accurate, this isn’t the case for adult testing.

But professionals who have experience with ASD — like psychiatrists or psychologists — can help make an accurate diagnosis in a way that’s sort of similar to how children are diagnosed. This usually involves asking a lot of questions, both to you and to other people in your life.

While Asperger’s isn’t technically a diagnosis anymore, many people on the autism spectrum still identify as having Asperger’s. Some doctors also still use the term despite its absence from DSM-5.

According to DSM-4, the definition of Asperger’s included:

Decreased social interaction

A diagnosis of Asperger’s included at least two of the following symptoms:

  • impaired nonverbal behaviors, including eye contact, body postures, facial expressions, and gestures
  • a lack of social relationships
  • no desire to share interests, enjoyment, or achievements with other people
  • inability to return social or emotional interest from others

Repetitive interests, activities, and behaviors

At least one of the following symptoms accompanied a diagnosis of Asperger’s:

  • strong enthusiasm for at least one restricted, stereotyped interest pattern that’s unusually focused or intense
  • rigid dedication to specific rituals or routines that don’t appear to serve a purpose
  • repetitive, physical habits, like finger or hand flapping
  • constant preoccupation with the individual parts of objects

Other considerations

DSM-4 also noted that there wasn’t a significant delay in development for the following areas among those who were diagnosed with Asperger’s:

  • language skills
  • cognition
  • self-help skills appropriate for a child’s age group
  • adaptive behavior (besides social interaction)
  • curiosity about the surrounding environment during childhood

A diagnosis of Asperger’s, according to DSM-4, also meant that the criteria for another specific pervasive developmental disorder or for schizophrenia weren’t met.

If you or a loved one has just received a diagnosis of ASD, there are plenty of places to go to find out more information, get support, and find connection with others with similar experiences.

The Asperger/Autism Network (AANE) provides a list of support groups and community sessions for ASD adults.

For more information, resources, and ways to find support, check out these advocacy groups: