What Is Asperger Syndrome?

Asperger syndrome is a developmental disorder that starts in early childhood. The condition was first described by Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger in 1944; the World Health Organization recognized it as a distinct disorder in 1992. Asperger syndrome is similar to autism, another type of childhood developmental disorder, and some doctors consider it to be a high-functioning type of autism. Asperger syndrome affects about one in 5,000 children, and boys are three or four times more likely to have Asperger than girls.

About Asperger syndrome

Children with Asperger syndrome look just like other children. Although they may have learning problems, they have normal or even above-average intelligence.

Child with tutor

Children with Asperger syndrome have difficulty communicating and interacting with people. They have problems reading the emotional signals from others that let them know how someone is feeling. They may also may seem clumsy and tend to repeat certain routines or rituals over and over again. Children with Asperger syndrome don't outgrow it—it is a lifetime condition—but with proper treatment most people can lead full and productive lives.

Symptoms of Asperger syndrome

The first symptoms are usually seen at about age 3:

  • Obsessive interests. Children with Asperger syndrome often become overly interested in a single object or subject and devote all their time and attention in it. They tend to learn everything they can about that one topic and talk about it constantly, sometimes sounding like a junior expert.

  • Unusual speech. Children with Asperger syndrome have good vocabularies but unusual ways of expressing themselves. They may talk in a monotone voice or have trouble controlling the volume of their voice, speaking loudly in libraries or movie theaters, for example.

  • Social isolation. Children with the condition have trouble making friends because they are awkward in social situations. They may stand too close or talk too loudly to others, who may see their behavior as odd or inappropriate.

  • Physical symptoms. They may have delayed motor skills and be clumsy when they try to ride a bike or play with others. Their body movements may seem stiff, and they may repeat motions, like rocking or spinning, again and again.

  • Oversensitivity. Children with the condition may be unusually upset by loud sounds, bright lights, strong smells, or being touched. They may also be easily upset by any change in schedules or routines.

Causes of Asperger syndrome

Although the exact cause of Asperger syndrome is not known, current research points to genetic changes that occur during a baby's development in the womb. Asperger syndrome tends to run in families, and researchers are trying to identify genes that may be passed down through the generations. Special types of brain images taken of children with the condition show that certain areas of their brains develop and function differently from those of children without the condition. Asperger syndrome is not caused by bad parenting.

Diagnosis and treatment

No specific test is available to diagnose Asperger syndrome. Symptoms usually cause parents and doctors to suspect the problem. Diagnosis may start with developmental screening during a well-child or well-baby exam at the doctor's office.

These are behaviors that may suggest Asperger syndrome in a young child:

  • Failure to make eye contact

  • Failure to respond to his or her name

  • Not making gestures like pointing or waving

  • Having little interest in playing with other children

  • Showing unusually repetitive movements or behaviors

  • Delayed motor skills and lack of coordination

  • Aloofness

When Asperger syndrome is suspected, a team of medical providers will evaluate your child before making a diagnosis. The team may include a pediatrician, a neurologist, a mental health specialist, and a speech and language specialist. If Asperger syndrome is confirmed, they will help set up a program to help your child learn how to interact with other children and adults.

Here are types of therapy that children with Asperger syndrome may receive:

  • Social skills training to teach them how to play and interact with other children

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy to help them learn how to deal with their feelings and avoid obsessive interests and repetitive behaviors

  • Speech and language therapy to show them how to speak more normally

  • Occupational therapy to teach them how to use their bodies less awkwardly

  • Education and support to help parents learn how to manage Asperger syndrome at home

With early diagnosis and proper treatment, youngsters can learn to cope and manage Asperger syndrome. Adults with the condition often need continuing care and support, but many are able to lead independent and successful lives. 

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