Asperger’s Syndrome

(Asperger’s Syndrome is now listed alongside autism in the DSM-V as a subset of Autism Spectrum Disorder. I will cover them separately here.)

Asperger’s Syndrome (simply “Asperger’s” or AS) is a neurobiological disorder on the higher-functioning end of the autism spectrum.  Asperger’s differs from autism in that the symptoms are less severe and individuals lack language delays. The lack of language delays is consider a key characteristic of Asperger’s, although now research indicates that those with Asperger’s do have distinct but subtler language differences from neurotypical people. Another defining characteristic of Asperger’s that differentiates it from autism, is average to above-average intelligence.

Symptoms of Asperger’s, according to ASPEN (Asperger Autism Spectrum Education Network), are:

  • Marked impairment in the use of multiple nonverbal behaviors, such as: eye gaze, facial expression, body posture, and gestures, to regulate social interaction
  • Extreme difficulty in developing age-appropriate peer relationships. (e.g. AS children may be more comfortable with adults than with other children)
  • Inflexible adherence to routines and perseveration
  • Fascination with maps, globes, and routes
  • Superior rote memory
  • Preoccupation with a particular subject to the exclusion of all others. Amasses many related facts
  • Difficulty judging personal space, motor clumsiness
  • Sensitivity to the environment, loud noises, clothing and food textures, and odors
  • Speech and language skills impaired in the area of semantics, pragmatics, and prosody (volume, intonation, inflection, and rhythm).
  • Difficulty understanding others’ feelings
  • Pedantic, formal style of speaking; often called “little professor,” verbose
  • Extreme difficulty reading and/or interpreting social cues
  • Socially and emotionally inappropriate responses
  • Literal interpretation of language; difficulty comprehending implied meanings
  • Extensive vocabulary. Reading commences at an early age (hyperlexia)
  • Stereotyped or repetitive motor mannerisms
  • Difficulty with “give and take” of conversation

Not all symptoms need to be present for a diagnosis, and an individual’s symptoms can range from mild to severe, with mild cases often going undiagnosed. Dr. Stephen Bauer notes that most children with Asperger’s will be educated in mainstream settings, and that the border between Asperger’s and neurotypical-but-different can seem blurred to the untrained.

People with Asperger’s have serious difficulties with social and communication skills, but often want to fit in socially. They might miss jokes (despite often having a good sense of humour themselves or an interest in puns) or take sarcasm literally, misunderstanding the speaker’s intended goal. They might engage in a long, one-sided speech about their topic of interest, completely missing the listener’s cues of disinterest/boredom/desire to change topics.

The tendency to misread social cues, leading to socially-inappropriate responses, can end with their peers finding them ‘odd’ or thinking the one with Asperger’s is insensitive to their feelings. (New research suggests that, contrary to previous clinical evaluation, Asperger’s don’t lack empathy for others so much as they experience such intense empathy that they can’t cope.) The isolation and/or bullying that can result makes positive social interaction even more difficult. These struggles can help lead to the development of mood disorders, such as depression or anxiety.

Asperger’s also affects a person’s executive function skills, which are required for managing daily life tasks. A person with Asperger’s might have trouble with executive function skills such as time keeping, organization, concentration, regulating emotions, processing speed, overcoming procrastination, etc. Executive functioning problems can manifest in different ways, such as difficulty turning in homework, chronic lateness, or failure to seek help if not on the right track. These difficulties tend to appear in adolescence or adulthood, when changing life expectations require greater use of executive function skills. More frequent demands make the breakdown points more evident, especially in school, work, or independent living.

Among gifted children and adults, it can be difficult to determine if what’s being observed is an aspect of giftedness, Asperger’s, or both, particularly in cases of mild Asperger’s. Maureen Niehart notes that gifted children can display many similar characteristics to a child with Asperger’s: verbal fluency; excellent memory; memorizing facts or trivia; absorbing interest in a topic and acquiring vast amounts of factual information about it; lengthy speeches about topics of interest; constant questioning and/or elaborate answer beyond what the situation requires; etc.

This can lead to misdiagnosis or a failure to diagnosis Asperger’s in gifted children. Niehart suggested the following to help distinguish between ‘ordinary gifted’ and ‘gifted with Asperger’s’:

Differentiating Characteristic Ordinary Gifted Gifted with Asperger’s Syndrome
Speech Patterns Normal, but may have language of older child Pedantic, seamless speech
Response to Routines May passively resist, but will often go along Very low tolerance for change, agitation, aggression
Disturbance of Attention If disturbance exists, it is usually external Disturbance is internal
Humor Engages in socially reciprocal humor Can do word play, but typically doesn’t understand humor that requires social reciprocity
Motor Clumsiness Not characteristic of most gifted children 50-90 % of Asperger children manifest
Inappropriate Affect Not a characteristic Nearly always observed
Insight Insight usually good Usually remarkably absent
Stereotypy Not a characteristic May be present

Table 1; Niehart, Maureen. “Gifted Children with Asperger’s Syndrome”. Gifted Children Quarterly. 44.4; 222-230. National Association for Gifted Children: 2000.

As with undiagnosed cases of Asperger’s, a gifted child with undiagnosed Asperger’s won’t have access to the resources needed to adapt. Learning appropriate, healthy coping skills is especially important for the twice exceptional in their need for a fulfilling, healthy life.

Many books and articles have been written on Asperger’s and gifted children with Asperger’s. If you would like more information on Asperger’s, please visit ASPEN, Autistic Hoya, or Hoagie’s Gifted Education.