Asperger’s syndrome is one of a group of disorders that affects a person’s behavior, use of language and communication, and social interaction. It is named after Dr. Hans Asperger, an Austrian pediatrician, who first studied the condition in 1944. Dr. Asperger described a group of boys who showed, “little ability to form friendships, one-sided conversation, intense absorption in a special interest, and clumsy movements.” He maintained that “the fundamental disorder of (these) individuals is the limitation of their social relationships.”
While Asperger’s syndrome in adults has received a great deal of attention lately, important information about Asperger’s is often missing in the general discussion. Here are facts that everyone interested in Asperger’s should know.
1. It Does Not Exist
With the 2013 publication of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual – 5 (DSM-5), generally accepted as the authoritative description of mental health conditions, Asperger’s Syndrome no longer exists as a separate disorder. It is now part of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
This means that officially there is no such thing as Asperger’s. The symptoms of Asperger’s are now understood to be the same as those of autism, thus the distinction between the two no longer exists.
Two things are important to remember about this merger. People with what would have formerly been described as Asperger’s have intact language, unlike those who are considered to be autistic. Secondly, the symptoms of Asperger’s are overall less severe and have less impact on the person’s social, behavior, and emotional functioning than is the case with autism.
2. No One Knows What Causes It
What causes Asperger’s is still largely a mystery. Research shows that it is connected to early changes in the structure of the brain as it is developing, but the actual mechanism of these changes is not understood.
One thing that is clear, however, is the role that heredity plays in determining who develops Asperger’s. Studies of identical twins show that when one child has Asperger’s the chances of the other child having Asperger’s is about 30%. Such a strong association indicates that genes and inheritance are significant causes of Asperger’s.
3. Asperger’s is a Developmental Disorder
A developmental disorder is a chronic, severe disability of a person at least 5 years of age that results in substantial limitations in three or more of the following:
- Capacity for independent living
- Economic self-sufficiency
Asperger’s is present at birth and continues throughout the person’s life-span. It can impact learning, language, capacity for independent living and self-care skills, although not all these are always affected.
The main reason it is considered a developmental disorder is because it is a life-long condition and has such an important impact on the person’s life. Adult Asperger’s is actually a misnomer. The correct term is Asperger’s in adults. If it didn’t exist in childhood then it doesn’t exist in adulthood.
4. Asperger’s Is Primarily A Social Condition
People with Asperger’s have trouble understanding what someone else is thinking and feeling. They often need to be taught social behavior that is learned and understood normally by others. They have difficulty understanding communication that isn’t spoken, so called, “non-verbal” communication, such as hand movements, facial expressions and tone of voice.
They often describe themselves as feeling different from most other people. They tend to see the world in black and white, with difficulty compromising or seeing the grey areas. Eye contact is difficult for them. All this adds to their social awkwardness and trouble relating to others.
5. Intelligence Plays No Role in Asperger’s
Unlike classic autism, which often negatively affects the person’s intelligence, people with Asperger’s are generally of normal or above-normal intelligence.
An unusual preoccupation with very specific subject matter is characteristic of those with Asperger’s, for instance, extensive knowledge of train schedules, WWII fighter aircraft, or pre-historic dinosaurs. They tend to have a restricted range of things that interest them. Because of their interests and focus, they can succeed in tasks that require a great deal of intelligence.
6. There is No Connection Between Asperger’s and Violence
There is no evidence that people with Asperger’s are any more prone to violent behavior than the general population. They are sometimes diagnosed with other mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, bi-polar disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder, and whatever aggressive, violent behavior they might demonstrate is more likely due to these other conditions than to Asperger’s itself.
According to Professor Elizabeth Laugeson, at UCLA, there is no clear association between Asperger’s and violent behavior. She notes that while there may be a higher rate of aggressive behavior in people with Asperger’s, as there is with autism, planning and intending violent behavior is not characteristic of Asperger’s.