What is Asperger’s syndrome?
Asperger’s syndrome (also known as just Asperger’s) is a developmental disorder. It is one form of the autism spectrum disorder diagnosis (ASD). It causes impaired language and communication skills as well as repetitive or restrictive thinking and behavior
Asperger’s syndrome, though no longer an official diagnosis, belongs to a group of neurodevelopment conditions known as autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Experts consider what was previously diagnosed as Asperger’s syndrome to fall on the mild end of the autism spectrum. Now you might also notice this called level 1 ASD.
Main signs of Asperger’s include:
- having difficulty with social interaction
- engaging in repetitive behavior
- standing firm on opinions and beliefs
- focusing on rules and routines
Some autistic people have what’s often referred to as high-functioning autism.
“High-functioning” isn’t actually a diagnosis. It simply means they need less support than other people on the autism spectrum. This category typically includes people with Asperger’s.
Asperger’s doesn’t involve delays in language skills or cognitive development, so people can generally manage the activities of daily life on their own. Their needs generally won’t prevent them from being educated in a mainstream classroom or holding a job, in other words.
How is Asperger’s syndrome different from autism?
Asperger’s syndrome is no longer a standalone diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5).
This most recent edition was published in 2013. Since then, anyone who would have received a diagnosis of Asperger’s according to diagnostic criteria in previous editions of the manual would simply get a diagnosis of ASD instead.
The signs associated with Asperger’s now fall under ASD, a spectrum of persistent communication and behavior patterns. But many people who received an Asperger’s diagnosis before this change may still prefer the original term.
The major difference that sets Asperger’s apart from ASD is that people with Asperger’s tend to:
- show milder symptoms of autism
- have strong language skills, without language delays
They may need very little day-to-day support, and they may not get a diagnosis until later in life.
What are the symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome?
Some signs of Asperger’s include:
- Hyperfocus. Many people develop an extreme focus on a narrow topic of interest. For children, that could be an all-consuming interest in things like train schedules or dinosaurs, for example. This interest can fuel one-sided conversations with peers and adults.
- Trouble recognizing social cues. People with Asperger’s might remain unaware of attempts to change the topic of conversation, which can be one reason why they have difficulties with social interactions. They may also have difficulty knowing when to lower their voices in certain locations.
- Difficulty reading facial expressions or body language. Many autistic people have a hard time recognizing and understanding other people’s feelings. They might find body language difficult to interpret, avoid making eye contact, speak in a monotone, and display few facial expressions.
- Difficulty with motor skills and coordination. Some children with Asperger’s may find essential motor skills, like running or walking, challenging. They might lack coordination and have trouble with climbing or riding a bike.
What causes Asperger’s syndrome?
Changes in the brain are responsible for all ASD diagnoses, but doctors haven’t yet determined exactly what causes these changes.
Experts have identified a few potential factors that might contribute to the development of autism, including genetics and exposure to environmental toxins, such as chemicals or viruses.
Boys are more likely to receive a diagnosis of ASD. That said, 2017 researchTrusted Source suggests many autistic girls never get the right diagnosis.
How is Asperger’s syndrome diagnosed?
No single test can tell you whether you or your child is on the autism spectrum. If you’ve noticed any signs of Asperger’s, a mental health professional or specialist can help determine support needs by assessing key areas, including:
- language skills
- social interactions
- facial expressions when talking
- interest in interacting with others
- attitudes toward change
- motor coordination and motor skills
Some people on the autism spectrum might originally receive a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or other neurodevelopmental conditions. If a diagnosis doesn’t seem to fit, you always have the option of connecting with another specialist or healthcare professional.
Remember, though, that professionals no longer diagnose Asperger’s — they’ll diagnose ASD instead.
How is Asperger’s syndrome treated?
Many autistic people, including people with Asperger’s, don’t consider ASD a disability or disorder.
To put it another way, Asperger’s, like autism, isn’t a medical condition that requires treatment. Some autistic people may need support at school, work, or when handling activities of daily life, but support isn’t the same thing as treatment.
Early diagnosis can make it easier to get the right kind of support, which can help improve social interactions and day-to-day function.
When it comes to ASD support, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Different people have different needs, and a combination of therapies and other approaches can help address each person’s specific challenges.
People with Asperger’s could also, of course, have mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression, just like anyone else. Getting treatment for these mental health symptoms can go a long way toward improving overall well-being.
There’s no medication that treats Asperger’s, but some people might use medication to manage symptoms of common conditions that occur at the same time, namely depression and anxiety.
Medications sometimes prescribed include:
- Antidepressants. Antidepressants can help ease symptoms of depression. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), a common type of antidepressant, can also have benefits for symptoms of anxiety disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
- Anti-anxiety medications. Anti-anxiety medications, including SSRIs and benzodiazepines, can reduce symptoms of social anxiety and other anxiety disorders.
- Anti-psychotic medications. Some doctors may prescribe these for irritability and agitation. Risperidone and aripiprazole are currently the only medications approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)Trusted Source for this purpose.
Various therapy approaches can help improve communication skills, emotional regulation, and social interaction. These include:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is a type of psychotherapy that can help identify and change negative and unhelpful thought and behavior patterns. CBT can help with anxiety, depression, and other personal challenges or day-to-day difficulties.
- Speech therapy. A speech therapist evaluates and addresses language and communication challenges. For someone with Asperger’s, speech therapy might help with voice control.
- Social skills training. Social skills programs address issues that make social interaction challenging for people. Skills taught might range from conversational skills to understanding social cues and non-literal languages, such as slang and commonly used expressions.
- Physical therapy (PT) and occupational therapy (OT). PT and OT can help improve fine motor skills and coordination. OT can also help children with Asperger’s cope with sensory issues.
Parental training and therapy can also help parents get support with raising a child on the autism spectrum.
Not much research supports the benefits of other approaches for people with Asperger’s, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t help.
Other potentially helpful strategies include:
- Melatonin. Sleep disturbances, which aren’t uncommon in children with Asperger’s, can worsen anxiety, depression, and irritability. Some evidence from the 2018Trusted Source suggests melatonin could have benefits, so it may be worth asking your doctor about trying it.
- Music and art therapy. Music therapy (also called sound healing therapy) and art therapy could help with communication, emotional, and social challenges associated with Asperger’s.
- Massage therapy. Massage therapy may provide a short-term reduction in anxiety or sensory-related symptoms for some autistic people, as long as they’re comfortable with being touched.
- Acupuncture. A 2018 review trusted Source found that acupuncture could help improve social adaptation and sleep, along with other symptoms of ASD. The review authors emphasized the need for larger randomized controlled trials to support these findings.
- Support groups. Children and adults with Asperger’s, along with their families, may find it helpful to connect with others on the spectrum. Support groups and online forums offer an accessible environment to discuss Asperger’s and get more information and guidance.
If you think you or a loved one may be autistic, a good next step involves connecting with a doctor, mental health professional, or other specialist.
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