(Autism is now listed alongside Asperger’s Syndrome in the DSM-V as a subset of Autism Spectrum Disorder. I will cover them separately here.)
Autism is a neurobiological disorder characterized by impaired social interaction, verbal and non-verbal communication difficulties, and restricted/repetitive behaviour. Diagnostic criteria require that these symptoms be present before the age of three; they usually become noticeable as the child does not reach expected developmental milestones.
As both autism and Asperger’s Syndrome are Autism Spectrum Disorders, there is some overlap in symptoms, such as inflexible adherence to routines and perseveration; superior rote memory; difficulty judging personal space, motor clumsiness; and sensitivity to the environment, loud noises, clothing and food textures, and odor; or extreme difficulty reading and/or interpreting social cues.
However, autism differs from Asperger’s in several ways. Symptoms tend to be more severe, and negatively impact daily life to a greater degree. Possibly the biggest difference between Asperger’s and autism is that autism is characterized verbal communication difficulties. A child with autism might have difficulty combining words into meaningful sentences; they may repeat words or phrases; or they might echo verbatim what was said to them. Those with less severe verbal impairment might be able to speak without much noticeable difficulty, only to have trouble sustaining conversation or remaining on topic.
Executive function is also impacted by autism. Executive function skills such as time keeping, organization, concentration, regulating emotions, processing speed, overcoming procrastination, etc, might be underdeveloped in milder cases, or functionally absent in more severe cases. This can impact independent living, and create unique challenges for parents or caretakers.
Another, often stereotyped, symptom of autism is atypical body language. Facial expressions and language might not match what a person means to communicate, which can lead to frustration. Repetitive movements such as rocking, hand flapping, jumping and twirling, or arranging and rearranging objects in specific ways are also characteristic of autism. Changes in routine or misplacing objects can cause distress. This, coupled with the difficulty in communicating needs, can lead to intense frustration for the individual with autism. Early intervention and possibly device-assisted communication can help them explain what’s needed and reduce the experience of frustration.
Again, not all symptoms may manifest for someone with autism, and the degree to which they do can vary widely. People with autism are not inherently less intelligent than average; in fact, many with autism have above average intelligence. The communication challenges that come with autism may mask other signs of giftedness, preventing people from being correctly identified. Twice exceptional people might have a harder time find work in general, to say nothing of work that fulfills them.
That being said, people with autism do lead happy and fulfilling lives. With access to support and resources, many people with autism pursue higher education and settle into careers, have a social life that fulfills their needs, and self-advocate.