What exactly is Asperger Syndrome?
A brief scan of the history of the term Asperger Syndrome may lead one to think that it isn’t a topic worthy of much attention or emotional investment.
For many people, this is far from the truth. The topsy-turvy record of the term—its inception, the attention it received, and subsequent seeming disappearance from the medical field—makes it all the more intriguing, and sometimes painful, for patients and families directly involved with it. The symptoms of Asperger’s haven’t gone anywhere, though, they’ve just been placed under a new name.
In this post we’ll explore:
- what Asperger Syndrome is
- how it relates to (and recently is a form of) autism
- tips for working with someone who has Asperger’s
What it is (a Brief History), and Where it Went
Asperger Syndrome (AS) was first noted in the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) in 1994 after being simultaneously discovered by Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger in the 1940’s. In the five decades between being discovered and recorded in the DSM-IV, it was studied and observed by numerous other physicians and created a new body of published work focused on describing and understanding Asperger’s.
While it drew quite a bit of attention and gave many people with the diagnosis a feeling of satisfaction and understanding, the term shortly lost its autonomy in the fifth edition of the DSM. Published only 19 years after it was initially added, the new edition merged the symptoms of Asperger’s with those of autism, placing it instead in the category of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). So, technically speaking, the symptoms of Asperger’s now fall under an ASD diagnosis. Anyone who was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome at the time of the change didn’t lose their diagnosis, it just started going by a different name. Additionally, people still use the term Asperger’s widely to describe the condition that is now called ASD.
The natural question: why such a short history of a term widely known and used?
During that time of observation by so many different physicians, there naturally arose many different conclusions about the syndrome. This led to people within the field being at odds with the kind of criteria that should be required for a diagnosis.
To put it simply, it lost its distinctive category within the autism spectrum because it didn’t have enough of its own diagnosis criteria to differentiate it from the criteria required for a high-functioning autistic (HFA) diagnosis. Basically, there were too many similarities between AS and HFA to let AS remain distinct from autism. Indeed, symptoms can range drastically between individuals, making criteria for a diagnosis even harder. However, many patients, families, and specialists were surprised to see it removed from the DSM-V because they felt that there was sufficient evidence to differentiate it from HFA.
Click here to compare the criteria for a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome in the DSM-4 to diagnosis criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorders in the DSM-5.
So then, what are some differences and similarities between what people still refer to as Asperger’s and High-Functioning Autism?
How it Relates to Autism
Following is a broad and concise list of the main observations relating to both HFA and AS (as described before the DSM-5). It is difficult to get a solid list of differences and commonalities considering the vast and varying observations of AS, and the fact that AS is now officially considered a form of autism.
- The main similarity is that both struggle with social situations. However, even this trait has its differences for the two terms. Those with autism are usually withdrawn and lack the desire to interact with others, while those with Asperger’s are the opposite. Desiring greatly to fit in and be social, they simply lack the ability to do so, often creating awkward situations.
- Another commonality is interest-restriction, though this was not included in all of the propositions of mandatory criteria for a diagnosis of Asperger’s.
- A big difference between the two is language skills. This is more developed in someone with Asperger’s and generally is marked by more intonation and pitch.
- Another difference is academic skills. In observations, those with Asperger’s typically perform better academically than those with autism.
Tips for Working with Someone who Displays Asperger Syndrome Symptoms
- Understand their need for routine, and that anytime their routine is disrupted it could be upsetting.
- Be considerate of their differing brain functions. Because of the way their brains process information (taking in lots of detail and not sorting out the unimportant information of the day), small decisions can be time-consuming and tiring as they consider “all the little things.”
- Side-by-side learning can be an effective teaching tool for someone with Asperger’s. Often, they will get stuck in the routine of performing tasks certain ways even if those ways aren’t effective or best. Thus, helping them in the midst of a task to do it the better way by doing it with them can help break the cycle.
- Be aware that, for some with Asperger’s, physical activities that include gross motor skills can be difficult.
We hope that this post has been helpful! The history of Asperger Syndrome and Autism Spectrum Disorder is fascinating and much more detailed than one has room to talk about in a single blog post.
Please refer to the references below for further research.
Anderson, Connie. “Redefinition: Autism, Asperger’s, and the DSM-5.” Interactive Autism Network. April 20, 2012. (https://iancommunity.org/cs/simons_simplex_community/dsm5_and_asd)
Barahona-Corrêa, J. B., and Carlos N. Filipe. “A Concise History of Asperger Syndrome: The Short Reign of a Troublesome Diagnosis.” Frontiers in Psychology 6 (2015): 2024. PMC. Web. 6 Nov. 2017.
Baron-Cohen, Simon. “Leo Kanner, Hans Asperger, and the discovery of autism.” The Lancet, Volume 386, Issue 10001, 1329 – 1330